The 5-axis Fanuc RoboDrill Plus-K Automation System with a robotic arm that changes the 36 different pallets held in the carousel is critical for helping NRL produce 4,000 ventilator assemblies each month. Photo courtesy of Nathan Eakins.

Jim Smith thought he was out of the ventilator business six years ago. After machining prototypes and some initial builds on components, his customer changed the design and moved in a different direction.

However, with COVID-19 threatening the country in March, the president and CEO of Stevensville, Maryland-based NRL & Associates heard back from that customer. Because of quality issues, they wanted to go back to the initial design when NRL was manufacturing the ventilator assembly and go into production immediately to meet demand for the critical devices.

“We worked out an agreement for 4,000 systems a year – each system is made up of three different parts, so a total of 12,000 parts per year,” Smith says. With the contract in place, Smith ordered a 5-axis Fanuc RoboDrill Plus-K Automation System from Methods Machine Tools’ distributor MTA Co. Inc. with delivery planned for June.

Right after signing that order, Smith’s customer got a call from the Federal Coronavirus Task Force requesting ventilator production be increased from 4,000 a year to 4,000 a month. Armed with a letter from the customer stating the ventilators are essential for COVID-19 treatment – the machine was going to be on the frontline of this battle along with the ventilator company – Smith asked Steve Norcio, president of MTA do everything possible to get him the machine ASAP.

Norcio moved NRL to the front of the order line, and the 5-axis Fanuc RoboDrill Plus-K Automation System was delivered on Saturday, April 4, set up with a robotic arm that changes the 36 different pallets held in the carousel, and was producing parts by Tuesday morning. The Plus-K Automation System adds a carousel parts carrier and tool holder to the RoboDrill for significantly increased productivity.

ABOVE LEFT: Once fully loaded, the 5-axis Fanuc RoboDrill Plus-K automation system will run unmanned for 8 hours, allowing lights-out manufacturing through the night and on weekends. ABOVE RIGHT: Extremely precise 5-axis Yasda machining centers shown on NRL’s shop floor. Critical for keeping up with ventilator part production, the two 33-pallet PX-30i’s enable multiple parts on one pallet, eliminating tool-change time. Photos courtesy of Nathan Eakins.

Producing non-stop

“It hasn’t stopped running since,” Smith says. “It’s running non-stop along with our two Yasda PX-30i 5-axis machines and two Mori Seiki NH4000 machines (https://us.dmgmori.com). We’re keeping everything running because right now we are making 160 ventilator systems a day.”

Once the machine is fully loaded, it will run unmanned for 8 hours, allowing lights-out manufacturing throughout the night and on weekends. Company employees come in and out during the weekend to load and inspect parts, 63 hours of production occurs from the time they leave the building on Friday night until they return on Monday morning. With the new machine up and running, Smith figured they would get caught up on production; that’s when an additional NRL customer approached them about an order from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for 25,000 ventilators. The customer wanted NRL to take on at least half of that order.

“Now I’m looking at another five component parts for at least 12,500 ventilator systems by the end of the year, if not sooner, and they are really leaning toward 17,500 systems by the end of the year,” Smith says. “I pray it slows down a little bit so we can catch our breath. With customers in other areas I don’t want to upset one side of the apple cart to take care of the other. It’s a fine line to walk between servicing existing customers, taking care of the ramp up, and not biting off too much.”

Keeping up with corona

Smith began working at the company in 1986 and purchased it with two partners in 2006. Today, the company employs nearly 60 people in a 50,000ft2 facility producing parts and high-level assemblies for medical original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and the U.S. Department of Defense – the company’s two largest types of customers.

Since Gov. Larry Hogan issued the stay-at-home order for the state in mid-March, several businesses have struggled to stay afloat, but medical production has had the opposite effect on NRL & Associates.

“Busy is an understatement, but we’re blessed to be on the right side of things. This time in 2008-2009 during the financial crisis, we were probably 90 days away from closing,” Smith says.

Equipment at NRL runs 24/7 and Smith is considering additional machine purchases as new projects continue to pour into the shop. While the company is looking to add staff, Smith is careful about not introducing variables within his business to make sure employees stay healthy. So, when the stay-at-home order was announced, everyone at NRL began wearing masks. In addition, with a full-time janitor on staff, cleaning high-use/high-touch areas has increased, most doors are propped open to avoid doorknob touches, and adjustments have been made in more common areas to offer social distancing.

Photo courtesy of Nathan Eakins.

Nonstop operations

NRL employees are familiar with Fanuc machines since the shop has a Fanuc RoboDrill a-D21LiA5, RoboDrill a-T21iFla, and RoboDrill a-DIB ADV.

“They just run and run and run,” Smith says. “We have very little issues with them, and they are just quick machines that can change directions and produce parts. From a reliability standpoint they’re unbelievable.”

Along with the fourth machine, NRL added multi-pallets that address the company’s need for non-stop production, especially these days. As Smith explains, with the multi-pallet machines they get extended hours of 5-axis machining of a part for long, unattended run times to maximize efficiency.

The 3-part system NRL is producing consists of a 5-sided part with several deep holes and a lot of intersecting holes – the main manifold of the ventilator – and it’s run on the 5-axis RoboDrill Plus-K Automation System. The Yasdas take on the remaining two 3-axis parts using tombstones to achieve maximum cycle time, optimizing use of the large 33 pallets on each machine. This enables multiple parts on one pallet and eliminates tool-change time, further increasing efficiency.

Aluminum makes up the majority of the ventilator parts, with a couple components produced in brass that must be plated.

Smith and his partners have sent items out for plating for decades, so they have a pretty good idea of plating costs. Unfortunately, they found price gouging cropped up quickly as the pandemic grew. One recent request for quote (RFQ) – where the word ventilator was included on the request – resulted in the RFQ coming back twice as high. That doesn’t sit well with Smith.

“We call that a clue that there’s price gouging. I have to sleep at night, I have to do what’s right. Now’s not a time to price gouge. It just doesn’t sit well with me,” Smith says.

Speaking with Smith, it’s easy to tell he’s passionate about his work and that price gouging bothers him. He’s extremely appreciative of his dedicated workers because without them, he knows NRL would not be getting the products out the door as fast as they can to satisfy customers. Smith says, “I can’t thank my employees enough – they are wonderful.”

As new RFQs continue to come into NRL and Smith considers investing in more equipment, the biggest challenge is uncertainty.

“Is it going away? Is it coming back in the fall? We don’t know that, and the customers don’t know that. It’s swimming in murky water where you can only see 2ft in front of you, but you have to run full bore. It’s interesting, to say the least. If it stays this way another year, it’s going to be crazy,” Smith concludes.

Methods Machine Tools Inc.

MTA Co. Inc.

NRL & Associates Inc.

About the author: Elizabeth Engler Modic is editor of Today’s Medical Developments magazine. She can be reached at emodic@gie.net or 216.393.0264.