When Gov. Gavin Newsom said that California hospitals will face a massive shortage of life-saving ventilators for seriously ill COVID-19 patients, the executives of the San Jose-based company Bloom Energy knew they had to do something to help.
Newsom made a call to action on March 16 to the state's CEOs to help find or manufacture equipment such as masks, gloves and respiratory ventilators to resupply hospitals that could run out of protective gear and vital equipment. He said the state could need at least 10,000 ventilators, which help critically ill patients to breathe, over the next three months.
Bloom, which produces fuel cells, decided it wasn't a stretch to repair and upgrade hundreds of older ventilators the state had purchased for prior pandemics, said Susan Brennan, the company's executive vice president and chief operating officer.
The company immediately put together a "tiger team" with government officials and Bloom employees to figure out logistics. A company engineer downloaded a ventilator manual and taught employees how to build and service the ventilators overnight, she said.
Engineers immediately began testing the ventilators to understand how well they functioned and set up an assembly line in the Sunnyvale facility to service the equipment. The company rearranged its storage to make room for the assembly line. It is keeping its main production line for its fuel cell production and created a new refurbishment line for the ventilators, she said.
"It's tight but effective, and we're keeping social distancing. It's tight, but it's 6-feet tight," she said.
The company made its first delivery of 24 repaired and upgraded ventilators this week. On Saturday, March 28, CEO KR Sridhar said the company had refurbished 80 ventilators on Friday and was prepared to ship another 120 on Saturday, he announced during a press conference in Sunnyvale with Gov. Newsom.
After Los Angeles received 170 ventilators from the federal stockpile that weren’t working, the state quickly had a truck deliver them to Bloom Energy for repair on Friday. The repaired ventialtors are due to be returned to Los Angeles on Monday, fully functional.
Sridhar said in future weeks the company would be able to ship 200 to 250 ventilators at a time.
"We will not be the bottleneck," he said, while urging anyone who has a ventilator to send it to Bloom for refurbishing.
Bloom is one of two local companies committed to retooling for building ventilators. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said he would use the company's Fremont car plant to produce the life-saving equipment. This week, he delivered more than 1,200 purchased ventilators to the state, Newsom announced. Musk said in a tweet that he has been talking to leading manufacturers about supplies and engineering for repurposing the Tesla plant.
Bloom chose to refurbish rather than build machines because it will boost the state's supply quickly, while others are ramping up for production, said Brennan, who is a former vice president of manufacturing for Nissan, North America, and Ford Motor Company's director of the global manufacturing business office.
"We know we will be ahead of anybody who is building new," she said.
The biggest challenge to the new operation? Supplies.
"We started with 200 (ventilators) and we are only right now constrained by supplies. We are working with our external partners for incoming supplies," she said.
Brennan is optimistic the company can turn out many hundreds of ventilators in a short period of time.
"I have never seen this level of cooperation between people who don't know each other. It is as frictionless as a process that's difficult could be," she said.
Bloom is also using its manufacturing facility in Delaware to refurbish ventilators on the East Coast. The company started working on its first six machines for that state on Tuesday, she said.
The company is calling for other states and hospitals to locate and send in any timed out, expired or out-of-warranty ventilators. Once brought up to a standard for suitable use, the ventilators will be shipped back to the providers, which have the responsibility to validate and certify the devices, she said.
"We're not in this to make money. We're doing this because we saw a need," she said.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.