2020 was shaping up to be another steady year for Barbara Mishell, a project manager at Molex, Koch’s electronic connectivity company, who oversees a project encompassing hundreds of people on two continents. Then COVID-19 turned it into a sprint.
For years, Molex had been manufacturing a set of ventilator components that suddenly were in urgent demand. As the new coronavirus spread around the world, it was causing a global shortage of the ventilators needed to treat patients affected by it. Suddenly, for Mishell and her global team, 1,000 units in a year became 2,500 units in a week, with a goal of tens of thousands as quickly as possible. Their usual lead time of about four months for this product shrank to four weeks.
The Molex Printed Circuit Solutions group produces the user interface for a compact ventilator initially built for the U.S. military. The machine’s size and portability make it well-suited to the current crisis, Mishell said: “The beauty of this particular instrument is it is very mobile, small and light.” That means if one hospital doesn’t need a ventilator, it can easily be shared with another that does; the machines are also useful in pop-up hospitals. “They are flexible enough where they could go pretty much anywhere,” Mishell said.
They’re also ideal for first responders and hospitals experiencing equipment shortages, said Molex business development manager Eric Smith: “They’re designed to be used in the field.”
Molex manufactures the control panel and the cables for these portable ventilators — small parts that make a big difference. The extra-flexible cable units allow for the machine’s compact design. These space-saving cables connect to the control panel’s buttons, or “domes,” that provide a tactile click when healthcare providers enter patient information into the device. Anyone operating one of these ventilators does it through Molex’s interface.
Mishell got the call on a Sunday night in March. She said, “I was asked to become the project manager to take an existing product and try to ramp it up into supplying ventilators for the global demand.” She jumped into action, bringing together a global team that included members from Molex engineering, purchasing, logistics, assembly and sales groups.
The challenge was clear: build as many parts as possible, as quickly as possible to meet a critical global demand for ventilators – and do it well, because people are depending on these life-saving devices. “We needed to understand what was realistic, what materials we needed to gather, what alternatives from our engineering group could be offered,” Mishell said. “We determined what each team member would need to contribute to get us there and how we go forward.”
In addition to the sheer number of components they needed to produce, there were long lead times for certain parts and a complicated multi-step assembly process that the team needed to account for. They also needed to account for the virus itself. Its global spread was creating a myriad of production challenges, including ensuring employee safety at facilities around the world and sourcing necessary materials to build the ventilator parts.
In her 23 years with the company, purchasing and material control supervisor MaryJo Castelo has never encountered such a stark challenge. “The demand was 20 times what we were used to, and that means it was 20 times for each of our suppliers,” she said.
Even with steep challenges to overcome, the team is moving unwaveringly toward its goal, already delivering more than 300 complete assemblies within the first month of production. In only a few months, Molex projects that it will have produced more than 20,000.
In addition to quality, speed has become a primary factor, so there’s no letting up. Castelo is exhausting every avenue to source materials to build the needed parts, racing with suppliers to see who can get parts fastest, knowing that each of those parts will go into a potentially life-saving device. “This has been a real challenge to ramp up. There's some very, very long-lead-time parts. And it's not an easy assembly,” Castelo explains.
But she keeps moving and stays motivated by her friends working on front lines – many of them nurses at local hospitals – who tell her to just keep doing what she’s doing, because they need the equipment she and Molex are making.
“I’m happy if I can make enough to send out 500 ventilators, because that might save 500 lives,” Castelo said. “And then next week, let’s take the next 500. And then the next week, let’s take the next thousand. Each one of those parts could mean another life saved.”
To keep the units coming, Mishell says the production team is “giving 110%” to expedite the build of the ventilator parts, like pre-assembling the dome interface arrays, and pre-cutting internal layers in anticipation of the assembly of final components.
“The teamwork we’ve displayed as a group, the amount of collaboration between Dongguan and Naperville, and the sense of urgency we’ve shared to provide a product that will help save lives has truly enhanced the sense of pride that this team feels on a daily basis working here,” Mishell said.
Considered essential workers, they’re doing it all at least six feet apart and adjusting for all social distancing and health guidelines. Many on the team are working remotely, staying connected with customers and one another via emails and chats pinging around the clock.
“This is 24/7. The response from our global team has been phenomenal,” Mishell said. “There are no borders to this. None.”