SKILLED MANUFACTURING

Traverse City’s Skilled Manufacturing Aerospace Division has begun making ventilator parts for COVID-19 patients.

TRAVERSE CITY — Crews in Traverse City this week are manufacturing components for ventilators that may in coming weeks save the lives of thousands of victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Skilled Manufacturing Inc. received a call asking if they could move quickly to begin making parts for the life-saving devices.

“On Saturday morning we had a conference call with one of our customers for a call to action,” said CEO Dodd Russell.

“We received blueprints sometime around noon on Saturday. We made our first prototype part Saturday night. Sunday we made the second prototype. Monday we made the third — and were in production on the two parts starting on Monday.”

Is that a faster-than-average turnaround time to tool up for a new product?

“Yup,” said Russell. “Most of the stuff we do, it can take us between 12 and 18 weeks to get launched.”

“We’ve got a national emergency, so — people are counting on men and women in Traverse City to make parts for ventilators and other things that are needed for our country to fight this pandemic.”

Confidentiality agreements don’t allow Russell to talk about who ordered the components, or even exactly what they are. But they are necessary parts for machines that will save lives.

Coronavirus patients with pneumonia or other breathing difficulties can require mechanical ventilators — which move air in and out of the lungs when the body itself can’t — to keep breathing when they’re hardest hit by the illness.

The Society of Critical Care Medicine has projected that 960,000 coronavirus patients in the U.S. may need to be put on ventilators at one point or another during the outbreak. But the nation has only about 200,000 of the machines, by the organization’s estimate.

Business news website Bloomberg reported Wednesday that global demand for ventilators suddenly is 10 times the available supply.

Manufacturers are ramping up production as fast as possible to fill the gap. Ford and GM over the weekend announced they would partner with other companies to increase production of medical equipment.

Skilled Manufacturing’s staff responded quickly to the call for help.

“I made one telephone call to our team, and we had 10 people in here in less than 45 minutes, ready to go.”

The company devoted three CNC machines — and about a quarter of the 100-plus workers — at its Aerospace Division to the project. Since Monday, it has been turning out 3,000 to 5,000 ventilator parts per day.

“There’s a lot of people that are working very, very hard at this all across the country to help,” Russell said. “We’re just one small part of it. But we’re an important part, and we’re doing it here in Traverse City.”

The company’s Aerospace Division is considered an essential business, so its entire crew is working through the pandemic. But the company’s Automotive Division is completely shut down, its 100-plus employees laid off.

“We have one side that’s trying to make parts and help as much as it can — and on the other side, we have a group of people from our team that have had direct effects to their lives. It’s been difficult,” said Russell.

The crew still at work is toiling at full speed.

“It’s all hands on deck. Our team has just done a really great job,” he said. “I couldn’t be prouder of the people that I work with every day. There hasn’t been one person that has said no when I’ve asked for help. It’s what you hope everybody would do — everybody has done.”

“We’re following all the CDC protocols. Our buildings are locked down anyway, so you can’t get in and out of our facility.”

“There are people here in Traverse that are really working hard to make sure we fight this pandemic,” Russell said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.