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When speed saves lives

In March, just when the coronavirus pandemic hit hard in Europe, MRT Castings was faced with an urgent demand for more parts to produce critical care ventilators. Only an additional diecasting cell could increase production so drastically, and MRT couldn’t wait months for the machine to be built and shipped. Together with DCS member company Bühler, the team managed to get a new cell up and running in just five weeks.

In the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, hospitals around the world were desperate for equipment – not only personal protective equipment, such as gloves, masks and gowns needed to protect medical staff, but also high-quality ventilators to ventilate critically ill Covid-19 patients when their lungs can’t get enough oxygen into the blood. Expecting rising numbers of severe cases, hospitals all over the world were gearing up for more critical care beds. With this race against time, well-known companies such as Ford, GM, Toyota, and Tesla pledged their support by converting a portion of their sites to manufacture such devices. However, ventilators are complex units that, as medical devices, are produced under a tight regulatory regime to ensure the units work reliably. Building a complete supply chain and getting the official approvals takes time. Time the hospitals and the patients didn’t have.

A faster way was for existing manufacturers to produce more ventilators and to rely on their known suppliers. In mid-March, existing supplier MRT Castings took up the baton in the race to help produce the much-needed ventilators. Their largest customer had called with an urgent request to increase production five-fold for die cast parts they were already producing. MRT manufactures a total of 19 parts for ventilators that are assembled by their customer and shipped worldwide. “When we got the request, we had just finished building a new production hall for future growth, and were moving in one of our existing diecasting cells,” says Phil Rawnson, managing director of MRT Castings.

Thus, space wouldn’t be an issue, but production capacity was. “Our new diecasting hall was constructed to accommodate additional capacity in the future, but we expected only to relocate existing machines initially, then add additional machines in later years. Covid-19 changed that plan immediately, and we had to come up with a fast solution in order to play our part in this pandemic response,” says Rawnson. He spoke with Jeremy Mitchell of Bühler, who was on site to support the move of an existing machine, and asked him how quickly Bühler could deliver a new diecasting cell. If it could be delivered tomorrow he would buy it immediately, he said. “Initially, I was joking,” says Rawnson. “But then Jeremy said, ?Let me check'.”

A portion of luck and trust

It takes about four months to produce a diecasting machine – too long to make a quick difference in this challenging market. But Mitchell promised MRT that he would look for an alternative solution. After a few calls, it became clear that Bühler had a suitable machine, an Ecoline 53, in stock in Switzerland that could be delivered quickly. “For emergencies, such as fire damage or complete breakdown of a machine, we always have a small stock of machines available,” says Mitchell.

The availability of the machine with the perfect specifications was sheer luck. There are numerous different specifications for die cast parts, MRT produces parts for medical devices as well as the aerospace and automotive industry. Depending on the size and the complexity of the parts, a different machine is needed. Also, the tooling had to fit the machine. Mitchell knew exactly what was required and the machine in Switzerland fitted the bill. “It takes a good and long-lasting customer relationship to be able to judge our requirements so quickly,” says Rawnson. MRT and Bühler have been working together for 20 years.

A thousand different components

Components for the medical industry have to meet high standards and strict approval processes. Not only do the parts have to be very precise and repeatable, but also cosmetic aspects are important. Unlike a motor block hidden in a car, for example, a lot of the parts for medical devices are visible in the finished product and therefore need to have a perfect surface finish. The critical care ventilators MRT’s parts are built into are complex high-tech units – the ventilator is housed in a robust trolley to be located at the patient’s bedside, complete with a touchscreen monitor. Some models even come with their own compressor, and independent power supplies, to enable them to operate whilst patients are being moved around the hospital. Such a unit consists of over 1,000 different components, supplied from 14 different countries, which makes a very complicated supply chain. And changing one supplier in the chain means going through approval processes again. The customer was therefore relying on MRT to come up with a solution for these essential diecastings.

When MRT realised that Bühler could provide the right machine for the job, in such a short time frame, the decision for MRT to invest was easy. It took just five days to discuss and sign the contract because MRT saw the future need. “Even when the pandemic passes, hospitals will be expected to ensure that they have enough capacity to meet intensive care ventilator needs. We therefore expect the elevated demand for these castings to continue for at least 18 months, and thereafter, the Ecoline 53 is a versatile machine which provides additional capacity for us in all market sectors. This made it worthwhile for us to invest in the capacity increase,” Rawnson enthuses.

United by purpose

One week after the order, the Ecoline 53 had travelled over 1,000km by truck from Switzerland to England and arrived at its final destination in Andover. “Our customer could hardly believe that things were moving so fast, so I sent them pictures to prove it,” Rawnson confirms. The Ecoline was placed in MRT’s new production hall where Bühler service engineers started assembling the machine immediately. “We worked in pairs on the machine, one on each side, so that we could maintain the required Covid-19 safety distance at all times,” Mitchell explains.

Accommodation was also a challenge. At the beginning of April, all hotels around Andover were closed due to the coronavirus lockdown. Consequently, every evening, after a long work day, the service engineers drove home in separate cars, for two hours. “Everybody went the extra mile and worked incredibly hard,” recalls Rawnson. “The urgency of the matter brought the MRT team and the suppliers together. We knew why we were doing this. We were united by purpose.”

Five hundred per cent more parts

It really was a team effort. While the new diecasting cell was being assembled, MRT took delivery of four new CNC machines from a different supplier (a further three arrived a couple of months later). This ensured that the additional parts manufactured on the new Ecoline could get the finishing touches needed for medical applications. MRT switched to a 24-hour shift operation, and recruited 45 additional employees from nearby companies where the workload had dropped due to lockdown.

Only five weeks after the initial request, MRT was able to claim they had achieved the impossible – they had increased capacity by 500 per cent. “Since 22nd April, we have been producing at full speed on the new machines,” Rawnson proudly states. Five hundred sets of the 19 parts needed for a critical care ventilator now leave the factory every week. MRT’s customer was impressed. “Because we responded quickly, we could give them continuity in their production and accelerate the process by months,” says Rawnson. “The exceptional collaboration with Bühler made this possible, so our supplier helped us to be a better supplier.”

Although the installation was short-notice, the investment will be long-term for MRT. “The new machine not only guarantees the reliability and continuity we are looking for, but also makes us future-ready,” Rawnson says. The Ecoline is IoT capable, with all the peripherals – extractor robots, die spray, robotic ladler, temperature control units – connected. So, in addition to helping to save lives during the pandemic, the urgent investment marks the first building block of the future production in MRT’s new hall. Rawnson concludes: “The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated our move into the new diecasting hall, and our investment in world-class new diecasting technology. We’re excited about the opportunities which this technology, and our partnership with Bühler, can bring for our continued growth.”

Much appreciation to the other DCS member companies which supported the project.