Flex Ltd., a contract manufacturer known for making Apple Inc. computers, is starting to assemble thousands of ventilators to meet surging demand for the machines in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The San Jose, California-based company will be churning out 25,000 to 30,000 ventilators a month by May or June, according to John Carlson, Flex’s head of medical solutions. That’s equal to the industry’s typical annual output, but as many as 1 million of these machines are needed now, he said in an interview Friday.
The coronavirus has infected more than 1 million people and killed 58,000. Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, affects people’s respiratory systems. That has led to shortages of ventilators as hospitals try to keep thousands alive. On Friday, New York and New Jersey governors ordered unused ventilators to be seized from medical facilities and redistributed to hospitals treating coronavirus patients.
Flex generates about $2 billion in annual sales by manufacturing medical devices for other companies. But ventilators are usually made in-house by medical-device companies, so this is new territory.
Still, Carlson said Flex and other electronics contract manufacturers are well placed to respond. Flex has plants in the U.S., Mexico and China as well as other locations around the globe, along with experience procuring parts, dealing with regulations and adapting to local situations, such as workforce lockdowns.
Ventilator production is slowed by the limited availability of proprietary valves and tubes that control the flow of air in and out of patients. These are usually made my small, specialist firms that supply them to medical-equipment companies, which, in turn, assemble ventilators themselves. That makes it hard to increase production quickly, Carlson said.
Flex is working to make its own versions of these valves and tubes by reverse-engineering existing units and using techniques such as 3-D printing, he said.
Many different companies are trying to make ventilators, including Flex rivals. U.S. President Donald Trump has pressured carmakers to pitch in, too, but Carlson said those companies will struggle because they have no experience making these devices and it will take time re-tool their factories.
“It seems like a simple problem but the details get more complicated,” he said. “The whole world is trying to solve it, which is a great place to be, as long as the solution works.”