The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged today’s global manufacturers to meet extremely intense demands for a broad range of critical medical- and healthcare-related products, from N95 masks and other personal protective equipment to crucial laboratory reagents, viral testing kits and even swabs.
A key product needed in communities worldwide is ventilators. One of the most difficult and dangerous conditions caused by the COVID-19 virus is acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a type of respiratory failure characterized by the rapid onset of widespread inflammation in the lungs.
As the pandemic accelerated in regions across the globe, patients suffering from ARDS would often need to be placed on ventilators, sometimes for weeks at a time to save their lives. It also became clear that the supply of ventilators on-hand in healthcare facilities would not meet this growing demand.
As a result, major ventilator manufacturers, as well as many other companies seeking to help, began implementing crash programs to expand their ventilator production lines, attempting to fit multiple years’ worth of output into the span of a few months.
Massive Ramp-Up of Display Mount Production
Ventilators are complex pieces of equipment and manufacturers depend on well-equipped component suppliers and global supply chains to complete their products. As ventilator companies ramp up, they needed their suppliers to expand their production and deliveries equally as fast.
One of the leading U.S. manufacturers sources an important system component — a rotating and tilting control panel mount — from us at Southco, Inc. As a leading global designer and manufacturer of engineered access solutions, we manufacture a broad range of products — from locking mechanisms and positioning hinges for automobiles to more complex, multi-part assemblies.
The display mount is a device constructed of multiple components, including friction hinges and detent hinges manufactured by Southco, as well as other third-party parts. The mount holds the touchscreen control for the ventilator. It’s designed to be easily tilted and adjusted by medical personnel, yet once moved, it remains in place.
At first, the manufacturer requested that Southco double the delivery of the swivel mounts. Within a short time, that changed from double to triple, and then quadruple the delivery. Southco needed to rapidly adjust our manufacturing operations and supply logistics to satisfy the demand.
Guided by state-of-the-art lean manufacturing principles and a highly trained workforce, we had to make major production changes and address complex supply and logistics challenges within our own operations and with suppliers of other parts — and do so faster than we’ve ever done before.
Compressing 12-Weeks Into Days
Southco and the ventilator manufacturer first collaborated on the design of the display mount in 2007. In 2017, there were some design changes to reduce the number of parts within the mount and Southco now supplies between 3,500 and 5,000 mounts annually.
The manufacturer alerted Southco in mid-February 2020 that they needed to rapidly expand ventilator production in the United States. We realized that the first major challenge was solving logistics.
The display mount includes hinges we manufacture in the U.S. as well as multiple parts and castings sourced from around the world, including China and Taiwan. It’s a complex unit with close to 50 individual components and parts, right down to screws and springs. All these components are brought together and assembled on one of two production lines in our plant in Honeoye Falls, New York.
Our typical lead time for most of that material, which is shipped via ocean freight, is 10 to 12 weeks. We quickly reached out to suppliers to determine how to shift from ocean to airfreight — and how to manage the costs. An additional issue quickly arose: Just as we needed to start air-shipping components from the Asia Pacific region, strict limitations on exports from that region to the U.S. were implemented to help prevent the spread of the virus.
While it increased costs, shifting delivery to airfreight was the best solution to ensure adequate supplies. Fortunately, the ventilator manufacturer is a global company with its own strong logistics arm. We worked with them to identify and engage air-shipping resources. Through these and other efforts, we implemented weekly parts deliveries, cutting overseas supplier lead times from 12 to just three or four weeks.
Rapid Expansion of Assembly Lines
Simultaneously, our production team created a plan to rapidly expand mount production in Honeoye Falls to solve the logistics challenge. Under normal production conditions, they are produced on a single assembly line along with other products for Southco customers.
To handle the increased demand, we converted a second production line at our New York facility and implemented three shifts a day on both lines, five days a week (plus some Saturday and Sunday production as needed to keep on schedule).
Southco has invested in establishing and maintaining highly uniform manufacturing and quality processes, no matter which region or facility is performing the work. Across our 11 plants worldwide, depending on the type of production process — plastic extrusion, metal casting, etc. — each plant has the same equipment, the same tooling requirements, the same plant layouts and production flows and the same procedures.
It’s a unique strength that became crucial to our ability to respond in this situation because it gave us a very agile and clear understanding of our capacity and utilization. We understood what was necessary to increase capacity and cross-train associates to add a second line, and to expanding the production of parts needed for the display mount at our Concordville, Pennsylvania plant.
One of the reasons we can rapidly flex production lines is the detailed production documentation and operator assist tools we have for every product or device we produce. Step-by-step processes and instructions, supported by drawings and visuals, make it possible for Southco to cross-train personnel and easily transition from one production run to another.
We also have proven, well-established quality processes, such as inline quality checks, error-proofing processes and visual inspection procedures so potential issues can be caught quickly and rectified before the display mount is delivered.
Given the speed with which we expanded production, we were confident these quality control measures would enable us to meet our commitments while ensuring the mounts were manufactured with the highest quality.
There was an additional, unique challenge in this project: Southco had to ramp up production in March of 2020 while simultaneously implementing strict procedures to protect our workforce from coronavirus infection and sustain production while social distancing.
We instituted best practices, such as temperature screenings and social distancing, drawing on procedures we had implemented early on in our Shanghai and Shenzhen facilities. Composite screens were installed between workstations and stringent cleaning procedures before, during and after each shift in high-touch areas.
Although some of our factories in China and India shut down for short periods due to government orders, we have been able to operate the rest of our plants safely. To date, across our 11 facilities and 3,000 associates working close together, there has been no COVID-19 transmission between our associates.
Meeting Commitments Week After Week
Three months into the new rate of production, Southco has met its commitments 100% of the time. We ship at least once a week and more frequently, depending on demand. When necessary, our workers are willing to come in for weekend shifts to help keep our commitments. In addition, we have started building inventory to get ahead of the increasing demands, leveraging the flexibility of its production lines and skilled personnel.
Most importantly, we have been helping to make sure the ventilator manufacturer can keep its commitments to deliver these vital machines to the facilities that need them.
We were asked to accomplish what many other companies may have said wasn’t possible, and deliver complex products with the highest quality. The key here was our culture of communication, collaboration and quality we’ve built within our organization. Everyone from operations, logistics, supply chain, product management and manufacturing engineering were willing to pull together in the same direction to make this happen — because we all recognized how important it was, and still is, to get these life-saving machines built as fast as possible.