News & Views

Lighting company switches on ambitious plan for Covid-19 protection

Above: Indo has set itself a demanding target for making a new type of respirator for hospitals

A UK manufacturer of streetlights has shifted its focus to protection devices for frontline medical staff to combat the coronavirus threat.

Indo, a company in Southampton which makes digitally controlled lighting, is producing a new form of personal respirator designed to shield nurses and doctors from the virus at the heart of the pandemic.

The company has a reputation for innovation in its core business of street lighting

Rebecca Hatch, managing director, said she believed there was “strong demand” for the protective system among UK hospitals. “We have a fully industrialised product and we aim to make them at the rate of 50,000 a week by the end of May,” she said. Hatch did not disclose how long the company intended to maintain this rate of production – which industry observers regard as extremely ambitious.

The device is a form of personal protective equipment for hospital workers. It would supplement the more conventional mask and visor combinations that are most popular in medical settings but have been in short supply in Britain partly as a result of intense worldwide demand.

Indo has taken on a design for the respirator from medical researchers and engineers at Southampton University and formed a collaboration with University Hospital Southampton which has ordered 5,000 of devices. A first batch is undergoing trials at the hospital before being rolled out in areas such as intensive care.

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Indo does not plan any relationships with established healthcare groups to help it sell the systems but says its existing sales staff have enough expertise to take on the challenge.

Hatch said: “As a result of the health crisis, demand for our lighting products has fallen enormously. Both our factory and sales teams will switch their attention to the personal respirator which we will supply for as long as the Covid-19 crisis requires.”

She said the company had spent “several hundred thousand pounds” in development and manufacturing costs to prepare for making and selling the respirator and would take on new production staff if necessary.

When it goes on sale, it is likely to be priced between £300 and £600.

The respirator comprises a hood that covers the head, with fans driving filtered air into the hood to allow the wearer to work freely without concerns about exposure to health hazards such as viral particles.

However, before it can be sold, the Indo device must obtain regulatory approvals that experts have warned can be onerous.

“Obtaining the necessary regulatory approvals for a new design of personal protective equipment is usually not a terribly quick process,” said Gavin Walker, marketing manager at Respirex, a UK maker of protective equipment used in industry and for chemical contamination incidents. “It is likely to take several months due to the degree of testing and assessment required.”

Sarah Lepak, director of governance and policy at the British Healthcare Trades Association, said that for companies coming into healthcare from other industries, the complexities of coping with the special requirements in the health sector could be challenging.

Hatch said Indo had agreed a “confirmed testing procedure” with bodies such as the British Standards Institution whose safeguards need to be satisfied. She was confident the device could gain the relevant approvals without significant delay.

On Indo’s production target, an industry consultant said the plan was “not impossible but challenging”. He said it would be tough to achieve without Indo taking on a substantial number of extra manufacturing staff or through a big outsourcing exercise. The company has 27 full-time employees, who can be supplemented by part-time production workers taken on in times of high demand.

A manufacturing executive in a different industry said: “I admire Indo’s get-up-and-go spirit but they’re going to be on a steep learning curve.” A third industry figure said he doubted that Indo could find enough key parts – especially filters, which are in short supply – to come close to meeting the target. Hatch said that for the respirator Indo was working with six local suppliers making items such as plastic parts and circuitry.

The product is similar in concept to the “Greenwich hood”, a form of protection for health workers invented by Prof Mike Bradley at Greenwich University. Bradley and colleagues have set up a company, Worksafe Design, which is attempting to put the item into production. Like Indo, Worksafe Design has yet to receive regulatory approval for its system.

Indo’s main lighting business has evolved from its innovative circuit designs for light emitting diodes, which are a big part of modern lighting.

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Its circuitry eliminates the need for devices called LED drivers. These are normally required in LED lighting systems but have a high failure rate.

Thanks to its innovative approach, Indo’s products are simpler to install and have lower maintenance costs, enabling it to build up sales to public authorities keen to cut running costs for street lighting. Indo has also moved into other areas, including lights for horticulture.