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The scene at GE Healthcare’s Madison manufacturing plant since late March is something that Mark Goyette, general manager for its Life Care Solutions operations, would have thought impossible several months ago.
The facility is on a mission to quadruple production capacity of ventilators by the end of June as part of larger efforts by the Chicago-based manufacturer to help combat the coronavirus.
As of mid-May, ventilator production in Madison had more than doubled and is well on its way to its goal of doubling again, said Goyette, who has worked for the company for 22 years.
“We continue to work very hard to even exceed that,” he said.
As COVID-19 began to spread in other parts of the world, GE Healthcare’s Madison facility began working to double the capacity of its ventilator production. The plant is the sole production site of GE’s ventilator machines, which are being used by hospitals to help critically ill COVID-19 patients breathe, and in some cases, keep them alive.
By the time the pandemic was declared a national emergency in the U.S. in March, GE Healthcare announced plans to ramp up output of other critical medical equipment, including CTs, ultrasound devices, mobile X-ray systems and patient monitors.
By then, GE’s Madison facility had already met its first benchmark. But as global demand for ventilators only increased, it decided to double capacity once again. Since then, it’s been all hands on deck.
“This massive spike in demand, as we are all experiencing, was nothing that any of us had planned for,” Goyette said. “To the degree that the demand went up, you could say almost instantaneously, it’s been a full team effort.”
The plant has added 200 manufacturing workers to its existing 500-employee base to get the job done. Those hires are union members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, District 10.
Volunteers from other GE Healthcare plants and divisions of the company have made their way to Madison to receive training and be put to work on the ventilator production line, including 40 employees from a GE Aviation plant in Indiana, said Goyette.
Thanks to increased labor and shifts, the production line has become a 24/7 operation.
“We were able to quickly bring in resources so that we did not have an adverse impact on the output of other production lines in Madison,” Goyette said. “It’s something that the team has been very proud of, and it’s just a tremendous amount of teamwork.”
The facility also produces maternal infant care equipment, including warmers and incubators for newborn babies. The pandemic hasn’t increased demand for those products like it did ventilators, but that doesn’t mean production can fall behind.
Meanwhile, there has been a significant increase in demand for GE’s anesthesia delivery systems, which are also manufactured in Madison. It’s likely a result of a global ventilator shortage caused by the pandemic, said Goyette.
In March, the Food and Drug Administration issued guidance that anesthesia machines, which have a ventilation capability, could be used to treat patients who are respiratory-compromised from COVID-19 or other disorders. GE currently has supplied more than 100,000 anesthesia systems around the world.
While onboarding an army of new employees helped make GE’s ramp-up efforts possible, doing it during a pandemic comes with its own set of challenges.
“We want our employees to be safe at work and we want them to be safe outside of work and we’ve put in many different protocols, from temperature screening at the gate when people are coming in to providing additional space for social distancing,” he said.
Training for new employees is conducted in a tent that now takes up a portion of GE’s parking lot. It works well for the classroom portion, where social distancing is easy, but when it comes to hands-on training, there’s a learning curve.
“As human beings, if I’m going to show you how to do something, our natural tendency is ‘Come on over here and let me show you how to do it,’” Goyette said.
Instead, employees learn from detailed, high-resolution videos of the assembly processes and other new digital training methods that don’t require contact.
“Necessity is the mother of invention and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” he said.
GE hasn’t been alone in its efforts to supercharge production in the fight against COVID-19. In March, the company landed a partnership with Ford for the production of ventilators.
The collaboration focused on expanding production of a simplified version of GE’s existing design to support patients with respiratory failure or difficulty breathing because of COVID-19.
At the time, Ford said it planned to produce 50,000 of the ventilators within the following 100 days, with the ability to produce 30,000 per month thereafter as needed.
General Motors is another vehicle manufacturer that made the pivot, securing a contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to produce 30,000 Ventec Life Systems V+Pro critical care ventilators.
Germantown-based plastics manufacturer MGS had a tier 1 automotive supplier get in touch after being approached by GM about work on the GM/Ventec partnership.
The goal was to take a previously machined component and convert it to injection molded plastic to be able to ramp up the scale of production.
“This wasn’t a significant piece of business, but our people knew we could leverage our knowhow, our expertise, to help,” said Paul Manley, president of MGS.
The tooling for the part would normally take around 12 weeks to build.
“The tool shop saw that as a challenge,” Manley said.
The company had the tooling built in seven days.
“They did it, again, because they knew they could leverage their talents to help fight the disease. It’s incredible to see,” Manley said. “I wish I could take more credit for it. ... The truth is I feel we have the best people in plastics. … My job becomes very easy.”
New Berlin-based Pindel Global Precision had no experience producing ventilator parts prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Responding to heightened demand for the life-saving medical device, the contract manufacturer volunteered via LinkedIn to make parts at cost during the outbreak.
That led to emergency purchase orders with tight turnarounds for four ventilator parts, which were produced and shipped off to a West Coast manufacturer in a week’s time.
“Usually lead times are around three to six weeks and here they needed it in one week,” said Pindel’s chief executive officer Bill Berrien, who shared the experience during a recent Rotary Club of Milwaukee virtual event.
“We had to think very differently about removing bottlenecks in the process to turn around, reaching out to a tight network of suppliers for material and outside services,” he said.
In the weeks that followed, Pindel received purchase orders from another ventilator manufacturer and one of the national joint ventures mass producing the device.
Berrien said the nationwide effort around ventilator production in response to the pandemic shows the potential of advanced manufacturing in the U.S. and across the region.
“It is digitally enabled, it is technology enabled, and hopefully speaks to a different future,” he said.
Foxconn had announced plans to work with Medtronic to produce ventilators at its Wisconsin facilities, but it’s not clear if that partnership ever came to fruition.
GE Healthcare’s suppliers, particularly its Wisconsin-based suppliers, have played a crucial role in the company’s ventilator production initiatives, said Goyette.
Ramping up an entire supply chain is nothing short of a challenge. But GE’s Madison facility hasn’t been impacted by line shutdowns at any of its Wisconsin supplier plants, he said.
With no way of knowing how long the need for ventilators will last, GE has turned its focus to keeping the momentum going.
“The majority of our efforts right now are going into ramping up our entire supply chain and our production output,” Goyette said. “We’re now several months into this and we still see very strong demand.”
Goyette said one thing he has learned, as a leader, from these past few months is the power of a group working toward one common goal.
“There’s definitely a sense of purpose of what we’re doing at GE Healthcare; we’re working to save lives,” he said. “But also, when you set a goal of ‘let’s double production and double it again,’ and you start clearing obstacles out of the way and, let’s say, distractions in the form of trying to have people multitask and work on multiple things at the same time. When you can focus, it is amazing what you can see happen that you never thought was possible.”