Local Business Supports Pandemic Effort with 3D Printing Technology

Back to News & Views

A Birkenhead company has used its new 3D printing expertise to develop ground-breaking ventilators and PPE equipment following a collaboration with the Virtual Engineering Centre (VEC).

Heap & Partners is an award-winning company which designs, manufactures and distributes a range of industrial valves, instrumentation, and associated equipment for the oil & gas, chemical, petrochemical, pharmaceutical, power & utilities, nuclear, and life science industries worldwide.

Since being introduced to the potential of industrial digitisation and 3D printing through its collaboration with the VEC, its new capabilities have enabled it to offer support to several organisations during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Heap & Partners worked with Royal Sussex Hospital to create a prototype for the ‘Charlotte valve’ – an innovative solution designed by Italian engineers in response to a shortage of hospital ventilators at the peak of the pandemic, which allows an ordinary snorkelling mask to be transformed into a respiratory ventilator.

The resulting prototype is now being mass-produced by some of the UK’s biggest manufacturers.

The company is also working with Cambridge University on the development of a two-way ventilator system, producing plastic valves using its 3D printing process to ensure correct airflow levels. It has also used its expertise to prototype and print face mask visors for care homes across the UK and has supplied thousands of masks to date.

Heap & Partners first engaged with the VEC, a leading centre of digital engineering and technology integration which is part of the University of Liverpool, in 2018, as part of LCR 4.0, a part-ERDF funded initiative aimed at helping companies in the Liverpool City Region adopt digital technologies for growth.

The VEC helped the company to explore how existing Computer-Aided Design (CAD) skills could be rapidly applied to create a 3D printed model of a product, to strengthen its business value by identifying potential new products and markets, and to prioritise and implement its digital roadmap.

Within weeks of starting the project, the company had invested in its first 3D printer and, with additional assistance from the Science Technology Facilities Council (STFC), created its first scaled-down 3D printed valve prototype.

The 3D printing allowed the company to develop prototypes faster, manufacture more components in-house and explore diversification into new areas made newly profitable to the technology.

The VEC also helped Heap & Partners produce an IOS based Augmented Reality application using industry-standard tools, as a companion technology to the 3D printed valve, strengthening its proof of concept and enhancing the sales process and customer experience.

The project ensured that Heap & Partners was able to respond immediately to the Coronavirus pandemic, using its digital capabilities to support the global response. The company believes its partnership with the VEC has helped ‘future proof’ its business.

David Millar, Managing Director at Heap & Partners, said: “The VEC has been an invaluable partner, allowing us to take our business in new directions.

“COVID-19 has created market volatility and, as a business which sources component from China, we are keen to reduce our import requirements and manufacture more on home soil. We believe the VEC’s expertise in autonomous systems, plus the investments we’ve already made in additive technologies, will allow us to become more competitive, reducing costs and exploring new products and markets.”

Heap & Partners won a prestigious Insider Made in the North West award following the move into 3D printing. The company has continued to work with the VEC to enhance its 3D manufacturing capabilities and support the introduction of robotics and autonomous systems, to allow it to scale up production at its Birkenhead facility.

The company has also invested in an additive technologies laboratory, as well as a laser marking process enabling it to place a QR code on each 3D valve, so customers are assured of full product traceability in line with industry regulations.

For the full LCR 4.0 Heap and Partners case study, please click here.