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I’ve posted before about my oldest son, a 24-year-old sergeant in the Marine reserves. He had an active duty deployment last year to Latin America, returning home shortly before Christmas. He remained on active duty for another couple of months, through early February (approximately), then returned to his civilian job.
It turns out that he makes ventilator parts. He is a manufacturing tech at a small Tucson company called Alicat Scientific (website here). Alicat makes devices like flow controllers, flow meters, and pressure controllers for dealing with gas flow. Shown is a sample product.
Alicat’s products are used in ventilators, among many other applications. My son’s job is to operate a computer-controlled milling machine that makes the metal portion of the device (the part at the bottom of the picture).
When the COVID-19 crisis hit a couple of weeks ago, Alicat apparently received a great many orders for its products for use in ventilators. My son has been working overtime for the past two weeks as a consequence and expects this to continue for the foreseeable future.
It is a strange coincidence that a little company, located about two miles from my house and at which my son works, is a part of the effort to solve this crisis and save lives. American manufacturing appears to be extremely flexible and adaptable, if Alicat is any indication.
My son is a bit frazzled, as he’s working 60-70 hours a week, and the job does involve significant concentration. On the bright side, in a time when many are unemployed, his income has significantly increased because of the overtime. Plus, just yesterday, the company gave all employees a raise due to the volume of orders that it had received.
From reports from my son, the company seems to be managed by excellent people. Their first concern was the health and safety of their employees. The companywide raises sound like “spreading the wealth around,” but I think that it is motivated not by benevolence, but by rational calculation. This is not to say that the managers aren’t good people, but they are business people who need to make decisions based on economics. When you have a large increase in the volume of your business, and it’s not easy to replace your employees (as there is significant training time), it makes sense to give the employees a raise to keep them working hard.
I have a funny story about this from last weekend. My son called me at about 5 in the afternoon Sunday, the end of his workday, saying that he was a bit burned out. He explained about the overtime. I told him that I was proud of him for doing his part in the pandemic crisis, and asked what I could do to help.
His requests were home-cooked food and laundry. So I made him some spaghetti right away, and made arrangements to do his laundry when he dropped it off (which I did later, on Tuesday). He wanted to come by the house, which is on his way home anyway. He showed up with one of his guns that was jammed (with a shell casing stuck in the barrel and engaged to the extractor, so the entire bolt/carrier assembly wouldn’t slide). It must have been bugging him, so he brought it to his old man.
His middle-aged, kinda-fat, kinda-nerdy, lawyer of an old man. I cleared the jam in about 10 minutes. Did I mention that he’s a Marine Sergeant and works as a manufacturing tech? But I cleared the jam. I felt like a cross between MacGyver and Chesty Puller. Oh, and Michael Corleone, because I was still cooking his spaghetti. I did the little things that I could do, to help keep him at work.
Back to the main point. The manufacturing supply chain for ventilators responded almost immediately. Command-and-control economics was not necessary, as far as I can tell. Private companies are far more efficient in manufacturing ventilators than the government. The important job for government is to place the orders — which they did — and make sure that credit facilities are available to the manufacturers, if necessary, as they expand production — which they seem to be doing.
There are bound to be bottlenecks in the process. I would imagine that a great many parts go into a ventilator, and the companies that do the final assembly may be more specialized and less able to ramp up production rapidly. Further, production of ventilators is not the only potential bottleneck, as the goal is not a bunch of ventilators in a hospital storage room. The goal is a rapid expansion in the ability of hospitals, doctors, and nurses to have fully-functioning ICU (or ICU-type) beds available if needed, with the necessary ventilators and trained medical personnel to operate them.
Our country is full of amazing people. It turns out that my son is one of them, doing his part. I have great confidence in the ability of American manufacturers, hospitals, doctors, and nurses to rapidly respond to this crisis, if it turns out to be necessary.
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