Lab furniture supplier Formaspace announced in April that it had completed an initial order of 500 new ESD workbenches for the General Motors (GM) manufacturing facility in Kokomo, IN. GM and Ventec Life Systems announced a partnership on March 20 to produce Ventec critical care ventilators in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and President Donald Trump signed a presidential directive on March 27 ordering GM to produce ventilators and to prioritize federal contracts.
Formaspace was contacted by GM on March 22, with an urgent request to assist as fast as possible. Formaspace put all its resources toward developing ESD workbenches to assist with the ventilator production effort, and the first truckload of benches left Formaspace’s Austin factory just three days later. The destination: GM’s assembly operations building in Kokomo, a 100,000 sq. ft. facility spanning three floors, equipped with a cleanroom area and two production lines. The initial order was completed by April 9.
Jeff Turk, Formaspace CEO, tells Lab Manager that he’s always viewed his staff as makers of laboratory furniture that helps save and extend and improve human lives, but contributing to the COVID-19 pandemic relief effort really allowed everyone in the company to see what a difference they are making. He says he regularly visits the production floor to ask what people are working on, but “that week I went out there and said, ‘What are you working on?’ and they’d say, ‘What do you mean? I’m saving lives.’ And I just thought that was so cool because everybody got it—everybody up and down the chain got it. And of course we were just one small part.”
The Formaspace staff was “ecstatic” when the call from GM came in, says Turk, because the company had shut its offices in February—even before there was a disaster declaration—out of an abundance of caution. “Our leads for new business had fallen week after week—there was a great deal of uncertainty as to what our path forward as a company would be,” he says. “That order sealed the deal. We couldn't’ have been any more essential.”
Turk adds that not only did this order provide sorely needed supplies for medical staff and frontline healthcare workers, but it also ensured American jobs—not only for his staff, but for others outside of Formaspace as well. “We were able to keep our suppliers in business or bring them back so that they could restart their businesses at a time that was difficult for them,” he says. “We didn’t just keep ourselves in business and help make that effort to create ventilators—all of our vendors did a little bit better as a result as well. I’m proud that we’ve been able to stay in business and enabled everybody who touches us to live better lives during this crisis.”
An unexpected moment, says Turk, came when Vice President Michael Pence paid a visit to the GM facility in Kokomo on April 30, and was pictured standing in front of a Formaspace bench for over an hour while GM staff briefed him on their ventilator production progress. Formaspace’s furniture was also featured in a 60 Minutes segment detailing the GM ventilator project. “That was pretty incredible,” says Turk of the recognition. “It made me realize, in a much more tangible way than I had realized before, that while our front line healthcare workers are obviously heroes in this, the people that continue to come to work every day in quieter, less visible roles that enable us to build the things that save human lives ... those people are heroes too.”
“At the peak, we had people working up to 20 hours a day, seven days a week, to produce those benches for GM. That was a heroic effort and they deserved to be recognized,” continues Turk. “This is something all of our people did together. It was a very emotional process for me to see our efforts recognized.”
The 500 workbenches from Formaspace will be used for assembling the delicate electronic components of the ventilators. Each workbench’s work surface includes full coverage ESD protection (to protect against static electric shocks that could damage sensitive microelectronics), built-in parts bins, heavy-duty white powder-coated steel frames, integrated overhead lighting, and eight plug power strips.