While a worldwide supply chain is helping Bothell-based Ventec Life Systems and General Motors rapidly find parts to build thousands of ventilators for coronavirus patients, the most critical component needed for the machines is made in Woodinville.
That’s one of the first places GM dispatched its Michigan-based personnel to after agreeing to the “Project V’’ venture with Ventec. The city is home to the headquarters of Cascadia Custom Molding, which makes about two dozen of the more than 700 parts needed for Ventec’s VOCSN ventilator, including the main chassis inside the machine. The plastic part, officially called a “center band,” is slightly bigger than an iPad and contains 40 brass inserts that other VOCSN components can be screwed in to.
“It’s a very important part,” Ventec’s chief strategy officer, Chris Brooks, said Saturday. “But it’s a life-support ventilator, so every part is critical. Unlike other devices where you might be able to swap out a different tire set on a car or something.”
Brooks said the company’s plans to build up to 10,000 ventilators a month with GM haven’t changed after President Donald Trump on Friday invoked the Defense Production Act. The wartime law compels some companies to help make products for the government, but Brooks said Ventec already had a team at GM’s manufacturing site in Kokomo, Indiana, at the time — they returned home Saturday — preparing to launch production of ventilators there within two weeks.
A handful of Ventec’s suppliers, including Cascadia, are in Washington and about 80% in the U.S., Brooks said. Fifty to 60 GM purchasing agents scrambled for parts around the globe.
One of the first suppliers they contacted was Cascadia, which wouldn’t comment Saturday. But people with direct knowledge of Project V efforts that unfolded the past week said securing guarantees that enough of Cascadia’s chassis could be built in time was crucial.
“Assembly starts with the chassis,” one of the people said. “It’s like building a car. You can’t build a car without first having the chassis.”
Last Saturday, a day after Ventec and GM agreed to work together, plastics experts for the automaker arrived at Cascadia’s 90-employee plant in Woodinville – it also has a plant with 130 employees in Idaho – to meet with executives. Unlike other VOCSN parts supplied by Cascadia, the chassis takes the longest to build. About 700 units can be made per day using a customized steel mold.
Cascadia has supplied parts for Ventec the past five years. The Bothell company had been making about 150 ventilators a month until expanding to 250 in February. The GM experts at the meeting discussed building 200,000 ventilators for Project V and up to 20,000 a month.
They were told Cascadia could immediately start producing nearly 5,000 of the chassis a week by expanding from a five-day work week to seven.
By Wednesday, GM placed an order for 20,000 of each of Cascadia’s parts needed for Ventec’s VOCSN. Also of importance: GM guaranteed the company it would cover the cost of making those parts regardless of whether the Trump administration agreed to pay for the ventilators.
By that point, the administration was pulling away from a planned Wednesday announcement of the initiative in what Trump later suggested was a disagreement over volumes and pricing. Ventec had handled pricing talks with the federal government, and Brooks said Saturday that multiple production scenarios were presented to the administration in response to a request for information last Sunday with a Monday deadline.
On Friday morning, the president launched a Twitter tirade against GM and its CEO, Mary Barra. Shortly afterward, Ventec and GM announced they would start building up to 10,000 ventilators a month on their own — or more if needed — without the government’s financial backing.
Hours later, Trump invoked the Defense Production Act, even though GM had already agreed to produce the ventilators with Ventec. Some have speculated the move could give Trump more control over volumes and pricing, but GM has already agreed to provide its factory and 1,000 workers “at cost” to the project.
In a conference call Saturday led by Ventec and GM, suppliers were told of plans to start producing ventilators “within two weeks” at a volume of 10 units an hour to get the production line going before ramping up. Plans are to deploy three shifts of workers daily, seven days a week.
GM will let suppliers know weekly how many parts they’ll need going forward.
A person familiar with Project V said Cascadia informed GM it had 2,000 of the VOCSN chassis on-hand and that the company would move from a five-day production week to a sixth beginning on Sunday night and then seven days a week by early April. That would allow for a weekly production of 4,900 chassis — more than enough to supply a monthly ventilator count of 10,000.