Michigan-based custom injection molder PTI Engineered Plastics Inc. ran tooling operations around the clock to start production on components to meet deadlines for General Motors Co.'s and Ventec Life Systems' $490 million contract with the federal government to make 30,000 ventilators by August.
PTI started cutting five new tools for the project in early April, said Mark Rathbone, owner and CEO of PTI, with machines running 24/7 and employees working nearly as much.
"We don't normally run like that in our toolroom," Rathbone said. "The staff doesn't usually work weekends. … That's enabled us to eke out as much of the 164 hours there are available each week.
"We're doing the cough-assist valve for the breathing mechanism itself, some assembly and required testing," he said. "We have a couple of control buttons."
Late in the week of April 13, PTI started molding the five components it is contributing to the project, which has about 50 suppliers involved beyond GM and Ventec, Rathbone said.
"What's unique about this ventilator is that it doesn't need a prescription," Rathbone said. "Most ventilators, a doctor has to write a script. … Ventec's ventilators are one of the few that's out there that doesn't need one and is universal for anybody who needs assistance in breathing."
PTI's first phase of the project is 100,000 pieces over the next nine weeks, he said.
The contract molder's only plant, with 356 employees, is located in the Detroit suburb of Macomb County, which has the third-most number of coronavirus cases in the state, with nearly 3,800 confirmed cases as of April 15.
Rathbone said he recognized employees' concerns about coming to work after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer enacted a stay-at-home order March 10.
"Luckily" PTI has not seen any employees with a confirmed case of the virus, he said, but for anyone who may have come in contact with a case, the company has a 14-day quarantine requirement.
For the last month, in addition to increasing sanitation practices and creating a one-way walking system through the plant with six-foot distancing guides, PTI gave its production line employees paid Fridays off to encourage social distancing by reduced exposure, Rathbone said.
"A lot of employees are wondering why we're working as many days as we are," he said. "The executive order from our governor is to not work as much, cut back where we can. … We probably have about 50 people working from home in different departments, alternating out when we can.
"Our orders don't warrant us to run five days a week," he added. "The challenge right now is the reduced workforce."
PTI is currently running about 85 percent of its normal production level, Rathbone said, after the company laid off about 22 percent of its automotive and consumer electronic production staff in late March. The layoffs are temporary, and those employees are receiving full medical benefits, he said. Some employees have already been brought back on for medical-related production.
"We plan on bringing them back as soon as we can for our other lines," Rathbone said. "They were only intended to be laid off for three to four weeks, and we're coming up on the third week right now."
As production of components for GM's ventilator project gets rolling, he said, "we will start bringing people back to run around the clock."
He said PTI has also seen a surge in orders for components by customers making pulmonary medical devices, and it is working on a product for a customer making blood and saliva test kits for COVID-19 that give results in just four minutes.
PTI is "duty bound" to making needed personal protection equipment for medical customers in its community, Rathbone said, and will put out about 200,000 face shields over the next nine weeks.
"Our employees are really excited about what they do here and what we're doing to help the front lines," he said. "We've built a theme around World War II and adopted Rosie the Riveter as our mascot for everyone coming to work here."
The theme, Rathbone said, is "we can do it, let's beat this thing. Everybody has a fight in it."