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Humans of Manufacturing: Heroes

A New Type of Precision Ventilator

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.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has worn on, medical staff in hospitals have learned a few lessons. Some are simple, such as placing patients on their stomachs to help them breath. Others depend on advancements in technology, such as a ventilator that relies on delivering supplemental oxygen under high pressure into the nose rather than intubating a patient to deliver it directly to the lungs. This rather new design was just being introduced by a major medical equipment OEM when the pandemic hit in February 2020.
That is where NRL & Associates stepped up to do its part.

NRL & Associates President & CEO Jim Smith with his dedicated and hard working team of employees. (Provided by NRL & Associates)

“Normally a ventilator is a last-ditch effort,” said Jim Smith President and CEO for NRL & Associates, Stevensville, M.D. Ventilation is given only when a patient’s blood oxygen level starts to dip down to dangerous levels. However, intubation, which requires anesthesia and is necessary for standard ventilators, has dangers all its own. Forcing a tube down a trachea is not only uncomfortable, the patient cannot speak, eat, drink or swallow medicines, forcing a move to intravenous catheters if the ventilation has to last.

“What they’re seeing with COVID over the past nine months now is that this treatment is far superior than a standard ventilator because you can put them on it sooner,” said Smith. “They can still eat; they can still communicate. They’re not intubated, they don’t have a tube going down their throat. So, the recovery is much better than if you go on a standard ventilator. They can still take oral antibiotics; communication is much better, and a patient can get the treatment quicker.”

A Design Blossoms into Production

According to Smith, the medical OEM had developed the high pressure nasal ventilator in 2014, with NRL & Associates helping with much of the prototyping during its design stage. The relationship ended, amicably, at that point until the urgency of the pandemic forced the OEM to seek them out again. Only the request this time it was for 4,000 three-part units per year instead of a handful of prototypes.

For a contract manufacturer with 50,000 ft2 and about 60 employees, he considered it a more-or-less typical job. “We were looking at 12,000 parts a year, not really a big deal, though we were happy to help out,” said Smith, counting on a three year commitment from the OEM.

What they didn’t count on was how effective, and therefore in demand, the units would be. “[The OEM] got a call from the White House COVID taskforce asking not for 4,000 units a year, but 4,000 units a month,” said Smith. And, immediately, if not sooner.

His company wasted no time. “Within about four weeks, we were able to ramp up production to start producing at the rate of 4,000 units a month,” he said.

Pushing the Limit During a Pandemic

While meeting the goal posed by the OEM, it was not easy. With exactly zero slack time, this called for heroic efforts.

The Methods Plus-K Automation System, featuring a FANUC RoboDrill and carousel parts carrier and tool holder, provides NRL with the automation it requires for producing the ramped up volume of product ventilator assemblies. (Provided by Nathan Eakins)

“We brought [new] equipment in. We worked 24/7, around the clock, literally,” said Smith, noting that there is only 168 hours in a week and his machines ran in some weeks exactly 168 hours. “With the machines that we went to, they are multi-pallet machines that we can get eight or ten hours of run time unattended. The machines call us, text us when there are issues. We did that for months.”

Smith and his team rely on 5-axis multi-pallet machine solutions from Methods Machine Tools including the Methods Plus-K Automation System featuring a FANUC RoboDrill and carousel parts carrier and tool holder, as well as ultra-precise Yasda PX-30i machines.

“We had to deal with everything,” explained Smith. Like any manufacturing operation, unexpected shutdowns occur, but in a pandemic there are new situations business face. “We also had to deal with the general panic of certain employees. Some had health issues, making them susceptible to COVID. We had to evaluate everybody with an eye to protecting. We had to put health measures in place, such as cleaning [and protective gear]”, he said.

Smith was faced with new questions brought by a new challenge—staying open to help the country with a pandemic while his company was immersed in that same pandemic and most businesses were temporarily closing to protect workers. He reduced his work force to essential employees only, from 60 to 46, sometimes less. But they are only human and need rest and family time as much as anyone else. How many hours can they work? How hard could he push them? How to keep them safe during the entire process? “And we continuously had employees that we had to quarantine because they didn’t necessarily have COVID but were exposed to somebody that did. We had to go through the entire quarantine process, get them tested, and fight that entire battle.”

Given everything they went through—a lot of work, a lot of stress, new equipment, managing employees worried about their own health--why do it?

“We’re very patriotic,” said Smith simply. “If we have the ability, it’s our duty to do what we can do to help mankind, to help the population, to help the United States, to help the world.”

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