Making ventilator parts for GM and Ventec gives Racine manufacturer a mission

There are around 700 parts from 70 suppliers in the ventilators produced by a partnership between GM and Ventec Life Systems. It may be a small role, but Racine-based Speedtech International is playing a part in building those life saving products.

“This gives us an opportunity to make a difference in our lives and make a difference in a lot of other people’s lives that we don’t normally get the chance,” said Chris Karnowski, president and founder of Speedtech. “It’s one thing to bundle up some cables in a Google data center, it’s another thing to be able to supply a part that goes in a ventilator that is saving lives.”

Speedtech makes hook and loop fasteners used for bundling, banding, mounting and organizing cables, wires, hoses and other objects. It’s largest market is in low voltage cabling for fiber optics and data communications, but its products are also used in construction, audio, video and automotive.

The company had previously worked with Ventec, which led to a Saturday evening call from a GM buyer as the partnership was getting started. The buyer wanted to know if Speedtech was available and had capacity and raw materials, Karnowski said.

The message was essentially to start building as many fasteners as possible as fast as possible. The partnership set a goal of making around 10,000 ventilators a month.

Karnowski noted the partnership went from nothing to making its first part in less than two-and-a-half weeks.

“I’ve been in manufacturing 25 years and I’ve never seen any automotive company respond like that,” he said. The first ventilators were delivered to Chicago-area hospitals last week.

For Speedtech, meeting the GM/Ventec demand meant reprioritizing some labor and securing the raw materials needed for fasteners. Some machinery also needed to be moved to create a safer environment and employees are now regularly wiping down buttons and switches on their equipment. Steve Pope, vice president of Speedtech, said that work came with the knowledge that a supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

“If we’re one of the smallest guys in that food chain … we still feel like we can’t afford to make mistakes,” Pope said

Beyond GM and Ventec, Speectech is also supplying Bombardier with fasteners for face shields and has received interest from a variety of manufacturers looking to contribute to the fight against the coronavirus.

The need to act quickly to combat the spread of the virus means some of the normal mechanics of business, like settling on exact terms of credit, have taken a back seat.

“We’re financing bringing in a lot of the raw materials,” Pope said, noting suppliers have been open to discussing more favorable terms given the nature of the GM/Ventec project, but nothing has been solidified.

“These are unique times and a lot of companies, even raw material suppliers, they’re nervous and they’ve lost a lot of business,” Pope added.

He said the company’s owners have decided internally that they’re willing to dip into personal capital and savings if needed to make sure the company can continue to supply products for coronavirus efforts.

“Right now, we’re just more focused on getting them what they need than getting us paid for what we’re providing,” Karnowski said. “We’re going to get our costs covered. Might not be today, might not be tomorrow, might not be in a month from now, but that’s not the priority. The priority is helping save lives through the products that we’re building.”

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Arthur Thomas
Arthur covers manufacturing for BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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