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Humans of Manufacturing: Heroes

Time Crunch: One Becomes Two

In times of need, manufacturing is driven by a philosophy John Lennon said best, “There are no problems, only solutions.” Today, manufacturers have pivoted to produce the critical supplies and equipment necessary to battle COVID-19 at a rate never seen before. SME’s Humans of Manufacturing Heroes Edition tells the stories of the teams, companies and partnerships adapting to produce the tools needed to fight this global pandemic. Going behind the scenes to share how these once-in-a-lifetime transformations are happening and the people making it all possible.

Autocam Medical employees work on the VentMI prototype. (Photo/Autocam Medical)

When it comes to shifting production to aid in the COVID-19 pandemic, challenges can exist even if the product isn’t a sharp deviation from products you normally manufacture. That’s what Kentwood, Mich.-based Autocam Medical, a global contract manufacturer of orthopedic implants, spinal implants, precision instruments and orthopedic cutting tools, discovered.

As the pandemic swept around the globe, hospitals found themselves with an extreme shortage of ventilators necessary to treat and save COVID-19 patients who developed more serious respiratory complications from the virus. While engineers around the world rushed to develop cheaper and easier to build emergency ventilators and companies of all types and sizes pitched in to expand existing ventilator production, Dr. Kyle VanKoevering of MakeMedical, LLC, approached Autocam Medical with a drawing of a “splitter” device that could enable one ventilator to assist two patients at the same time.

Dr. VanKoevering, a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan Medical School, designed the splitter to double the capacity of the vitally needed ventilators. The “splitter” device, called VentMI (Ventilate Multiple Individuals), serves to provide mechanical ventilation to two patients from a single ventilator.

“We know that Individualized pressure control and the addition of other components is the key to effective ventilation,” said Dr. VanKoevering. “Combining custom pressure regulators and one-way valves, this system has been tested in simulated lung and animal environments and has Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from FDA.”

Although Dr. VanKoevering has broad experience in the application of 3D Printing for diagnostic and surgical applications, having played a key role in several groundbreaking and novel uses of additive manufacturing in medicine, and used the technology for initial design and engineering, final manufacturing of the device would benefit from more traditional manufacturing processes.

Enter Autocam Medical. Dr. VanKoevering approached the company, asking if they could use their medical manufacturing skills and experience to rapidly develop prototypes of several components for the piece. To which the company responded with a resounding, “Yes!”

Autocam’s experiencing making medical components and their existing certification to do so, made the company a perfect choice for the assignment.

However, as engineers at Autocam studied the prints provided by Dr. VanKoevering, they realized that special tooling, specifically end mills and chamfer mills, would be needed to machine the components. Modern tool manufacturers have made tremendous leaps in the turnaround time for custom tools, but in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, time was measured in minutes and hours, not days.

The VentMI device from protoype to production. (Photo/MakeMedical, LLC)

To solve this challenge, Autocam Medical turned to GWS Tool Group, which has a location quite literally around the corner from their facility. Autocam had worked with GWS before and was happy with their turnaround times, but this project demanded more.

“I called Fred Edmonson, the general manager [at GWS-MI] about our need,” said Justin Pickerd, manufacturing quality engineer at Autocam. “I told him I didn’t have time to set up a purchase order, but I explained what the tooling was for. Fred just replied, ‘What do you need and when do you want it?’”

GWS put tool design and manufacturing prints into motion immediately, without an order. And in less than 24 hours Autocam Medical had the six different custom tools they needed from GWS.

Equipped with the proper tooling to manufacture Dr. VanKoevering’s designs, Autocam Medical went to work making the prototypes requested.

“Prototypes like this can take months to develop,” said Pickerd. “Thanks to the fast turnaround from our team and everyone at GWS, we had the parts ready for assembly within days.”

Autocam’s sister facility in Tennessee was tapped to manufacture other components for the splitter device, which were then shipped to Michigan for final assembly. All told, the assembled VentMI splitter prototypes were presented to MakeMedical within the week.

Although Autocam Medical’s specialty is medical components, the company discovered that when racing against time during a pandemic, even manufacturing a part in the same broad sphere can create a set of challenges that require everyone to pitch in and help. Autocam Medical, with the help of GWS Tool Group, was able to cut months off the usual delivery timeframe for an innovative idea like Dr. VanKoevering’s VentMI splitter.

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