Kelly Willis Rice had just moved to the Kokomo, Indiana, area when she saw a news story about General Motors looking for people to build ventilators in the fight against the coronavirus. With little hesitation, she decided to help out.
"I would watch CNN a lot and cry and I was like, I need to do something to feel like I'm part of the solution and not just sitting here wishing I could do something," said Rice, 48.
As the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in the US, hospitals around the country struggled to secure much-needed ventilators that are used for critical coronavirus patients.
In late March, GM announced a partnership with Ventec Life Systems, in which it would help the medical supply company increase its output of ventilators and set up a ventilator assembly line at its Kokomo plant. In April, GM received a nearly $500 million contract with the Department of Health and Human Services to deliver 30,000 ventilators by the end of August, with the first 600 delivered not long after the deal was signed.
Rice filled out an application and took an online aptitude test -- the same one GM gives to all prospective manufacturing employees.
After a few days, she learned she had been accepted. She started her week of training a few days after that in what had been an unused building on the campus of GM's Kokomo Electronics Assembly facility.
"It was amazing because I started about a week or two into it and they were still converting floors from an abandoned plant, putting in new wiring, putting in a new ceiling, learning to do this themselves while teaching you and while hiring a thousand people," she said. "It was insane."
Rice was being trained to test ventilators that help patients breathe when they can't do so for themselves. The machines are sophisticated pieces of technology that must be able to respond on their own to a patient's moment-to-moment needs, without damaging delicate lung tissue.
As Rice was leaving training one day, someone called out to her. The first Kokomo-built ventilator had just come off "the burn," two days of running continuously on an artificial lung. They asked her to do the final check to make sure it was still in good working order. The ventilator passed the test.
"It was so exciting," she said. "We literally stood up and danced. I danced with a bunch of engineers."
A model for how factory work will be
Blake Rollins, 54, has been a GM employee for 30 years and is the facilities manager for the Kokomo plant. Even after the plant shut down on March 18 due to the coronavirus pandemic, he never stopped working. It was his job to make sure that, when the plant was needed again, everything was ready to turn back on.
He was also part of the site selection committee that decided the three-story former engineering and testing building would be the place to set up ventilator manufacturing. He was later asked to lead the start-up of the project.
His job now, he said, is completely different from what he had been doing before.
"I'm responsible for all facets of [making the ventilators] from the first subassembly to the final end product from a safety and quality standpoint, as well as cost," he said. "We watch this on a daily and hourly basis across three shifts."
Three shifts mean the factory is, practically speaking, operating around the clock. Sites like the Kokomo plant and other GM facilities making protective equipment have become models for how GM will operate all its manufacturing facilities as it begins to gradually reopens them.
Workers have to answer screening questions before entering the facility to gauge if there's any significant risk they have picked up coronavirus. Their temperatures are also checked when entering the facility. If they show signs of a fever or of being exposed, they're sent for testing. In the facility, workers must wear face masks and goggles and stay apart from each other as much as possible. All work areas are deep cleaned between shifts and throughout the day with placards noting when the area was last cleaned.
GM's Kokomo plant had been making electronics systems that run software for transmissions in GM vehicles. It's a big campus with multiple buildings and the availability of unused floor space was one reason the site was chosen. Another was the skills and education of the local population, Rollins said.
"The Kokomo area has an extremely strong automotive and electronics environment, background and population," he said. "So the skill base lends a hand, in itself, from a knowledge standpoint."
A ventilator is obviously very different from the electronics hardware for a vehicle transmission but, Rollins said, the manufacturing processes are actually fairly similar. As he put it, "the skill set is correct."
The fact that the ventilator production line is in its own separate building means that even as GM starts making cars again this week ventilator manufacturing can continue.
Initially, about 60% of the employees making ventilators were, like Rice, new to General Motors, he said. Some of those new employees have had manufacturing experience at other nearby factories, though. All workers at the ventilator factory, including new and even temporary employees, are members of the United Auto Workers Union, a UAW spokesman said.
Now, with GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler starting back up vehicle production and auto workers returning to their regular jobs, about 90% of the employees at the ventilator plant are temporary workers like Rice, a GM spokesperson.
Rice did not. She had previously worked in nonprofit activism and special education. She has always liked working in fields where she felt her work was important, she said, which was why the job at Kokomo appealed to her. So far, she said, she really likes her GM coworkers and might even consider a future making cars once this is over.