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Local auto sector capable of meeting emergency need for medical equipment

Dave Waddell, Windsor Star
March 18, 2020

Borrowing a page from World War II history, Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association president Flavio Volpe is suggesting Ontario’s automotive supply chain can help Canada avoid the shortage of vital medical equipment that could occur during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Volpe said with the European Union recently announcing restrictions on the export of medical equipment and supplies, Canada needs to ensure there’ll be enough domestic sources for ventilators and personal protection equipment.

“I’ve been speaking with provincial and federal officials the past few days,” Volpe said.

“We’ve offered to do our due diligence and find out what our suppliers need to manage this over the next year. The Canadian automotive supply sector can help manufacture medical equipment that might be in short supply.”

We’re used to high-pressure situations and timelines.
Volpe said he got a very positive response from government officials to his offer. He said discussions would continue this week with the province and Ottawa.

“I expect in short order to learn when and how we can help,” Volpe said.

In particular, having enough ventilators could be the key component in limiting the mortality rate of COVID-19. The mechanical breathing devices are the main supportive treatment for patients in the critical stage of COVID-19, according the Lancet medical journal.

Canadian Chamber of Commerce CEO/President Perrin Beatty tweeted out a request Tuesday for manufacturers who could retool to make ventilators and N95 safety masks to contact the federal government (celine.caira@canada.ca) because of the expected shortage.

The British government also recently asked Ford, Rolls Royce, Honda and other automakers to help produce them.

Canadian Association of Mold Makers president Mike Bilton said southwestern Ontario’s large supply chain could quickly make the pivot to produce medical equipment.

“We can make and assemble anything,” Bilton said.

“It’s reminiscent of World War I and II where the automakers retooled for military and aviation pieces.

“For mold makers and tool and die, this is our professional skill set. We’re used to high-pressure situations and timelines.

“Not to brag, but we have a lot of game.”

Cavalier Tool and Manufacturing Ltd. sales manager Tim Galbraith said the topic is one that is being discussed already in the industry.

“A lot of emails flying back and forth on this,” Galbraith said. “We had this very conversation at our morning meeting (Tuesday).

“I can tell you Cavalier’s position is we’d absolutely step up and help on this. I can’t think of a company down here that wouldn’t.”

Galbraith said Cavalier wouldn’t make a final product, such as a ventilator, but the steel pieces, tools or machines needed to do that is easily within their capability.

He said the company would only need a 3D CAD file or reverse engineer pieces to make the transition.

“With the technology we have today, you give us what you want done and we can start within hours,” Galbraith said.

“We have the ability in-house to conceptualize, study the feasibility, design and manufacture.

“This what we live and breathe every day.”

Galbraith said there are several Windsor companies already ensconced in the medical field making pieces for hospital beds, wheel chairs and other equipment.

There are also 3D printing companies that supply a broad range of industries from agricultural to medical to automotive.

“We just need a definition of the scope of what you want and the coordination of resources of those participating to make this work,” Galbraith said.

An example how impactful newer technologies like 3D printing can be came in the past few days in Italy.

A hospital in Brescia was flooded with 250 COVID-19 patients in intensive care, but didn’t have enough valves to connect patients to the ventilators. Two Italian 3D printing firms designed and printed 100 valves in three hours potentially saving dozens of lives.

“Windsor and Essex County is a target-rich environment for the latest technology to be able to pivot 360 degrees at the drop of a hat,” Bilton said. “There’s an unrivalled breadth of skill sets here.

“We have the resources, expertise and professionalism in the industry along with the college (St. Clair) and university (Windsor) to be on the cutting edge of how to implement this technology.”

Bilton said he already knows at least a dozen local firms would be eager to “step up and help.”

He believes local firms have the capacity to take on new projects. The area also has project testing shops that can be rented by the hour, day or month for new production.

“It would be a massive positive response from companies here,” Bilton said. “We’d be excited to be part of it.”

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