Engineering startups vs Covid-19: how our Hub Members are stepping up to the challenge – Part 3

05 May 2020

The supply of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has become one of the UK’s most pressing challenges in the Covid-19 crisis. As a result, many businesses have quickly pivoted to help, including engineering and technology startups. In this blog, we explore how two of our Hub Members have risen to the challenge, volunteering their own time and resources to support the NHS with a supply of PPE in the fight against Covid-19.


Sonobex collage

Who are they?

Sonobex uses acoustic metamaterials to control noise levels, usually for industrial applications. The Watford-based company has pioneered the development of acoustic panel technology, called NoiseTrap®, which can control low frequency sound and be tuned to focus, direct and manipulate sound.

How did they react to Covid-19?

When Sonobex founder Daniel Elford saw the Lindhurst Engineering PPE4NHS campaign asking for help sourcing protective clothing, he decided to contribute his small company’s eight 3D printers. He found the medically approved Verkstan visor design online and printed one in 19 minutes. He then attached this headband component to A4 PVC sheets he had in-house to make the full visor.

His employees offered to purchase the materials, gave up their time for free and made 380 visors in the first week. Using all eight of their printers, they can make 24 in an hour and plan to keep on going till they run out of materials.

Impact on business

Sonobex already uses 3D printers to make prototypes for acoustic research, so the pivoting was minimal. Daniel and a colleague wore full PPE to make them, maintained social distancing in their large office and “quarantined” each visor made for 72 hours before shipping.

For Sonobex, the learning from this experience has been in discovering the flexibility within the company. Daniel says: “Within half an hour of getting the 3D printer design, we’d optimised it and printed off our first visor! For bigger companies, their turnaround time might be a lot longer. It shows off the real-world applications of 3D printing. A lot of people think it’s a toy or just an R&D tool, not something that can produce real world products. As a network of up to 6,000 people printing these at home, we have proved that you can get a very large-scale result working as a community.”


Axial 3D collage

Who are they?

The Belfast-based early stage company Axial3D transforms CT and MRI scans into physical 3D printed models that surgeons use for planning critical surgery in orthopaedics, cardiology and neurology. These precision patient-specific medical models take 24-48hrs to make and give surgeons greater insight into the specific anatomy of a patient compared to 2D scans. Surgeons using these models for complex operations say they change pre-operative plans for half of patients and enable savings of time and money in most surgeries.

How did they react to covid-19?

The team at Axial3D focused their skills and technology on mass producing items, starting their PPE efforts by making reusable face shields. To date they have shipped over 20,000 shields to front line healthcare workers.

Axial3D is now also producing swabs with bristles on the end. These 7mm wide swabs are used to collect samples for testing and the company can make 500 in just one print run. With two prints done per day and up to 10 printers dedicated to producing the swabs, the company can make up to 10,000 a day! The flexibility and scale of 3D printing is also proving useful for a range of additional Covid-19 urgent requests, such as producing connectors for scuba masks (which are being used for emergency respirators) and making parts for ventilators.

Impact on business

Axial3D was able to pivot its business model while surgical capacity was temporarily reduced at the peak of the Covid-19 period.

Roger Johnston, the company’s CEO, thinks that one of the biggest lessons learned, has been the need to become better team members. He says: “For example, every Friday at 4.30pm we have an hour-plus drink-together, where we meet on Google Hangouts and we just catch up and enjoy being together as a team. So perhaps the biggest learning has been that we can work effectively remotely, and it has brought out a bunch of social and communication skills that we took for granted in the office.”


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