The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged today’s global manufacturers to meet extremely intense demands for a broad range of critical medical equipment 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 cram 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 Southco, Inc. As a global designer and manufacturer of engineered access solutions, the company manufactures 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. The company needed to rapidly adjust its manufacturing operations and supply logistics to satisfy the demand.

Guided by state-of-the-art lean manufacturing principles and a highly trained workforce, the company 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 the company had ever done before.

Compressing 12 Weeks into Days

Quality control measures, detailed production documentation, and operator assist tools enable the company to rapidly flex production lines to meet changing customer demands. (Credit: Southco)

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 it needed to rapidly expand ventilator production in the United States. Southco realized that the first major challenge was solving logistics.

The display mount includes hinges Southco manufactures in the United States 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 Southco’s plant in Honeoye Falls, NY.

The company’s typical lead time for most of that material, which is shipped via ocean freight, is 10–12 weeks. The company 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 the company needed to start air-shipping components from the Asia Pacific region, strict limitations on exports from that region to the United States were implemented to help prevent the spread of the virus.

While this precaution 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. Southco worked with them to identify and engage air-shipping resources. Through these and other efforts, the company implemented weekly parts deliveries, cutting overseas supplier lead times from 12 to just three or four weeks.

Rapid Expansion of Assembly Lines

The AV Display Arms series contains integrated constant torque positioning technology that allow monitors to be easily positioned. (Credit: Southco)

Simultaneously, the 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 products for other customers. To handle the increased demand, a second production line was converted at the New York facility, and the company 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 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 Southco’s ability to respond in this situation because it gave us a very agile and clear understanding of our capacity and utilization. The company understood what was necessary to increase capacity and cross-train associates to add a second line, and to expand the production of parts needed for the display mount at its Concordville, PA, plant.

One of the reasons the company can rapidly flex production lines is the detailed production documentation and operator assist tools in place for every product or device. Step-by-step processes and instructions, supported by drawings and visuals, make it possible to cross-train personnel and easily transition from one production run to another.

Another factor is having proven, well-established quality processes, such as inline quality checks, error-proofing processes, and visual inspection procedures so that potential issues can be caught quickly and rectified before the display mount is delivered.

Given the speed with which Southco expanded production, the company was confident that these quality control measures would enable it to meet commitments while ensuring that 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 2020 while simultaneously implementing strict procedures to protect its workforce from coronavirus infection and sustain production while social distancing.

The company instituted best practices, such as temperature screenings and social distancing, drawing on procedures implemented early on in its Shanghai and Shenzhen facilities. Composite screens were installed be tween workstations, and stringent cleaning procedures were in place before, during, and after each shift in high-touch areas.

Although some of the company’s factories in China and India shut down for short periods due to government orders, all other plants have been able to operate safely. To date, across 11 facilities and 3,000 associates working close together, there has been no COVID-19 transmission between Southco associates.

Meeting Commitments Week After Week

Three months into the new rate of production, the company has met its commitments 100 percent of the time. It ships at least once a week and even more frequently depending on demand. When necessary, its workers are willing to work weekend shifts to help keep the company’s commitments. In addition, Southco has started building inventory to get ahead of the increasing demands, leveraging the flexibility of its production lines and skilled personnel.

Most importantly, the company has been helping to make sure the ventilator manufacturer can keep its commitments to deliver vital medical equipment to the facilities that need them.

The company was asked to deliver complex products with the highest quality in uncertain times. The key to accomplishing this was the company’s culture of communication, collaboration, and quality built within the organization. Everyone from operations, logistics, supply chain, product management, and manufacturing engineering were able to pull together in the same direction to make this happen — because they all recognized how important it was, and still is, to get these life-saving machines built as fast as possible.

This article was written by Robert Shelley, Business Development Manager, Southco, Inc., Concordville, PA. For more information, visit here .