Tutku Gövsa is a computer scientist by training. But during the past week, he’s been on the factory floor in Madison, Wisconsin, helping GE Healthcare produce a clinical tool in the fight against COVID-19: ventilators.
Gövsa is one of about 100 GE employees and retirees who have volunteered in recent days to set aside their normal lives to help make ventilators at the Madison factory. Patients who develop severe cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus spreading rapidly around the world, may need breathing assistance from a mechanical ventilator, a device that automatically delivers air and oxygen to their lungs.
The global demand for ventilators, already enormous, will keep growing as the virus continues to spread. GE Healthcare is responding to help meet a share of the dramatic increase in demand. Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, the GE unit has doubled its capacity of ventilator production, and it plans to double it again by the end of the second quarter. It also has expanded its existing production line in Madison to 24/7 operations, recruiting GE volunteers such as Gövsa to learn how to assemble and test the complex, life-saving machines.
Ordinarily Gövsa works for GE Healthcare in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. He is the commercial platform leader for the imaging business, overseeing the application used by the sales team and account managers for pricing and quoting to customers. When his manager set a meeting on March 17 with the subject of “production support,” Gövsa thought it would be related to his regular job. Instead, the manager told her team that the Madison factory was looking for volunteers to undergo training and safety protocol measures to help their colleagues make ventilators and keep production running around the clock.
Gövsa immediately wanted to help. He talked with his wife and two children, and they supported his choice. “We made a family decision,” he says. “There is an urgency not only for the company, but for the entire world.”
Meanwhile, at the GE Healthcare Life Care Solutions (LCS) factory in Madison, Mark Goyette was preparing to receive and train the volunteers. Goyette, who has been with GE for 22 years, is the general manager for LCS Operations, overseeing the supply chain for the global business unit within GE Healthcare that makes not only ventilators, but also anesthesia machines and other medical devices.
Goyette needed to restructure operations to expand from one to three shifts on the ventilator production line, and to get his team who work on ventilators to more than double in numbers.
The plant already had increased staffing and overtime since January, when it became apparent that the virus causing COVID-19 was going to spread globally.
To expand to 24/7 operations, the plant needed workers with specialized training in areas such as quality inspection and material handling to cover the new second and third shifts. They also needed people to staff the expanded assembly lines. Within a week, they had solicited enough GE volunteers, like Gövsa, in addition to other specialized workers. The new recruits, who also included supplier quality engineers, production workers from other Wisconsin factories, shop supervisors and retirees, were dubbed “Wave 1.”
Among their ranks is Tyler Vermey, a Salt Lake City-based engineer who normally works on parts for X-ray machines that help to improve image quality. In mid-March, Vermey got a call to come back to Madison. Back in 2017, he worked on the factory’s ventilator line and built up a legendary knowledge of the valves inside the machines that regulate the flow of air as patients inhale and exhale. (In fact, Vermey knows so much about the precise components, he’s been referred to as the “valve guru.”)
Vermey’s three-day, 1,400-mile road trip from Utah to Wisconsin was in itself an exercise in overcoming adversity. The day before he left with his wife and springer spaniel, Salt Lake City was struck with a 5.9 magnitude earthquake, and on the first day of driving, Team Vermey hit a Midwestern blizzard, which checked their progress. “I felt like Bruce Willis in ‘Armageddon,’ ” jokes Vermey. But the valve guru is now safely installed in Madison and working that newly created third shift from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., teaching his colleagues about the crucial component. Says plant director Goyette: “When you walk in, it is a tremendous diversity of backgrounds. It’s phenomenal to see everybody coming together.”
Gövsa completed his orientation on March 18. On his first day in Madison, plant managers described the skills and roles needed for each shift. Volunteers came prepared with protective shoes and eyewear. As he toured the plant, Gövsa saw an order of ventilators ready to be shipped. “I felt emotional at this moment,” he says, reflecting on the importance of his task.
The next day, Gövsa began his training. He was paired with an experienced worker on the production line to learn how to assemble the ventilation engine that powers the ventilator. On Friday, March 20, he built several sets of his assigned segment of the ventilation engine, with guidance from the longtime employees and from extensive documentation. “It’s like building with Legos, but there are a lot of details,” he says. “You have to make sure the gaskets are fully in their places so there are no air leakages. Some oxygen sensors go in a very small box, so I get some hand cramps. There’s a learning curve, but I feel confident now.”
Gövsa’s role in assembling the ventilation engine is an important step in the complicated and rigorously monitored process of building a ventilator. In the initial stage, workers construct valves that regulate the flow of gases into and out of a patient’s lungs. These are precision components, Goyette explains, built in rooms that are controlled for temperature, humidity and particulates.
Once the valves are built and tested, they are delivered by material handlers to the station where the ventilation engine is being assembled. The ventilation engine is tested on its own and, after workers integrate the valves, tested again.
Next, the system goes to the main assembly line, where it is mounted with circuit boards, tubing and fittings that will connect to a hospital’s air system. After that, workers add a touch-screen display that a clinician will use to program a specific patient’s treatment. Software is loaded, and the machine is tested another time.
The ventilator moves to a configuration area, where workers adjust software settings, label the machine for particular languages, and attach the power cord and user manual. Finally, the ventilator goes to the shipping area, receives a test for electrical safety, is packaged with other hoses and accessories, and leaves the factory to be sent to the customer.
The factory is now operating around the clock, an achievement Goyette says couldn’t have happened without the contributions of the volunteers and the experienced production employees who guided them.
“The men and women who work at our facility every day have shown incredible cooperation, willingness and helpfulness to train so many new people coming in,” he says. “I am grateful to our dedicated workforce that was coming to Madison every day before this crisis started, in addition to the heroes who have joined the site.”
GE also is partnering with Ford Motor Company to design and produce a simplified version of its existing ventilator that can be manufactured quickly.
As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to grow worldwide, Goyette expects more recruits to join the plant in the coming weeks.
Over the weekend, Gövsa completed additional required training that would allow him to be self-sufficient at the factory. After completing his first shift on his own, from 3:30 p.m. to midnight, he made the hour-long trip back to his house to spend a little time with his family before returning to Madison.
“There are routine challenges, definitely,” he says. “But at the end of the night, when you’re making the drive back home, you feel proud of what you’ve done. I hope we can get through these hard days together acting as one.”