Supporting the Global COVID-19 Response
Employees at Kollmorgen's Radford facilities go to work each day knowing they’re helping to save lives as the world faces the COVID-19 crisis.
The international manufacturer of high-performance motion control products and systems makes critical components used to manufacture everything from personal protective equipment to diagnostic machines to ventilators. “We don’t make the N95 masks that everybody’s looking for, but we provide the solutions that automate the manufacturing of those masks,” said Kollmorgen General Manager Peter Dempsey.
Kollmorgen, a division of Altra Industrial Motion, first joined the global fight against COVID-19 in late January, shortly after Chinese officials placed Wuhan, ground zero of the outbreak, on quarantine. Clients asked Kollmorgen, which has a manufacturing facility and several offices in China, to increase production of motors and drives used in CT scanners.
“The CT scanners that use our motors are some of the most accurate in terms of the pictures they provide,” Dempsey said. “The 3D imaging allows doctors to differentiate amongst conditions and better understand when looking at the lungs what kind of virus might be attacking the system. And so in Wuhan, our motors, with the help of our customers who built the machines, were on the front lines.”
The Chinese government extended the Lunar New Year holiday to keep most factories and businesses closed as part of an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. With Kollmorgen, though, officials requested that the company open and increase production at its manufacturing facility in Tianjin.
After their experience in China, Kollmorgen executives prepared to increase production for companies in the United States. In early March, shortly after the first reported death from COVID-19 on U.S. soil, Dempsey began to hear from American clients.
Kollmorgen has provided motion solutions to ventilator and respirator suppliers for more than a decade. When leaders at many of those companies learned the nation lacked the necessary ventilators for critical patients and personal protective equipment for health professionals, they wanted to help by increasing production. Other executives of companies which had never manufactured these items wanted to buy components from Kollmorgen that would allow them to start new manufacturing lines. Dempsey also heard from company heads wanting to increase or start production of other essential items like test kits, diagnostic machines, and CT scanners.
To fill the urgent need, Kollmorgen managers decided that all motion solutions ordered by businesses manufacturing products to diagnose or treat COVID-19 would go to the front of the queue.
“Any time we get those types of orders, we’re just bringing them right to the top,” said Roy Mitchell, a Radford operations manager for Kollmorgen.
Case in point: A company that produces blood-gas analyzers, which can aid in monitoring critical COVID-19 patients, had long ago placed an order for 600 motors from Kollmorgen to be delivered April 7. On March 19, an executive with the company asked workers to send as many motors as they could, as soon as they could. The next day, 400 motors were shipped out.
In the days and weeks that followed, Dempsey said, “The need for these blood-gas analyzers has continued to soar, and the customer has placed orders for approximately 10,000 additional motors. We are manufacturing for this customer and shipping on a continuous basis.”
A Global Effort
Friedrich Kollmorgen founded the company in 1916 to provide periscopes for U.S. Navy submarines during World War I. Since then, Kollmorgen has evolved into a global manufacturer that creates motion systems and components for industrial automation and aerospace and defense. Since opening its first shop in Radford in 1958, Kollmorgen now operates two manufacturing facilities and an office building in the city where more than 600 of the company’s employees are based.
The company, which operates under a philosophy that its facilities should be built near areas where its products are heavily used, has locations all over the globe. Kollmorgen increased its international presence after completing VEDP’s Virginia Leaders in Export Trade (VALET) program in 2015. The two-year business acceleration program serves qualified Virginia companies who want to grow their business through international exporting.
“We were really trying to expand our presence overseas and continue our expansion from being a North America-centric company to expanding into high-growth markets,” Dempsey said.
Through VALET, Kollmorgen received extensive market research and invaluable guidance on navigating new markets from a team of experienced international service providers like attorneys, bankers, and freight forwarders.
A Focus on Employees
While employees at Kollmorgen’s Radford facilities race to meet the needs of manufacturers who want to produce equipment needed to diagnose and treat COVID-19, they’re also juggling their normal workload.
“We have other demands we need to make sure that we’re also fulfilling,” Dempsey said. “We do a lot in the food and beverage industry, and obviously that’s essential right now.”
Early in the spring, managers at Kollmorgen were weighing whether or not to add machinery to their Radford production facilities and also considering opening a dedicated line just to fill orders related to the pandemic. “We’re trying to do everything we can to support that demand,” Dempsey said.
In March, Kollmorgen employees in Radford began putting in extra hours. “We’ve been working overtime to meet some of the demands — Saturdays and the occasional Sunday,” Mitchell said.
Keeping employees healthy was a top priority for managers of the Kollmorgen facilities, which follow safety recommendations from national health organizations.
“It’s mostly keeping the folks safe and keeping them in a good spot where they feel comfortable,” Mitchell said. “We want them to know that that’s absolutely the No. 1 priority.”
One thing that has helped mitigate COVID-related stress, Mitchell found, is displaying letters from customers explaining how design and production of Kollmorgen motion systems aids in the products they’re manufacturing to help in the fight against COVID-19. Almost every time he walks by the bulletin board, he spots an employee standing there reading. “It really helps folks to stay motivated,” he said.