Cass City business moving at the speed of COVID-19

For 70 years, Walbro has produced engines and fuel systems to power outdoor equipment and recreational vehicles. Walbro was founded in Michigan, but now is headquartered in Arizona. It still has a facility in Cass City.

The company changed its focus over the course of just a few days in March when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. During that time, the company began producing innovative shields to help protect healthcare providers on the front lines of caring for people with COVID-19.

Walbro Intubation Aerosol Shields are already in use in the Great Lakes Bay Region. At full capacity, Walbro expects to ship about 10,000 shields a week to hospitals and healthcare facilities around the nation.

The shields protect healthcare staff from exposure to the COVID-19 virus when intubating a patient.
Walbro's shields protect health care staff from exposure to the COVID-19 virus when intubating a patient.
Here’s a timeline of how it happened:

March 17, 2020

Walbro, founded in 1950 to build fuel tanks, is a global leader in engine management and fuel systems for outdoor power equipment, recreational, marine, and personal transportation. In addition to Michigan, Walbro has locations in Arizona, Japan, Mexico, Thailand, and China.

On March 17, in response to an email sent by Matthew Riddle, CEO of Walbro, to the Engineering Director of North America, a team of about 50 people across all disciplines begins to brainstorm how they can help during the pandemic.

"Initially we were thinking of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) because that is what the national spotlight was on," says Brad Roche, the Cass City-based engineering manager of the new product development team.

March 22, 2020

The team considers producing everything from test kits and nasal swabs to N-95 masks. Without the technical knowledge or proper infrastructure to make many of these products, however, the team switches its focus to what it can quickly develop and produce. In the end, the team creates a list of 182 unique ideas for how Walbro can help.

March 24, 2020

Less than a week after receiving Riddle’s email, the team narrows its list to 21 feasible concepts including the Intubation Aerosol Shield. “It rose to the surface because nobody else was out there doing it on a large enough scale that it could be provided in the thousands to hospitals. This was achievable for us -and we knew it could actually make a difference,” says Roche.

March 26, 2020

Within days, Walbro sends eight prototype shields to nurse anesthetists and anesthesiologists to Beaumont Hospital in the Detroit area and Oaklawn Hospital in Marshall.

Nurse anesthetists, cardiologists, and other medical professionals play an important role in developing the final product. “The original prototypes were basically a cube with a couple sides missing,” says Roche. The original shields have sharp edges making them difficult to clean and maneuver around. They are also too heavy, weighing 20 pounds each. Visibility is a concern with the prototype.

"Where nurse anesthetists stand, over top of the head of the patient, at the head of the bed, they were looking right through one of the edges or corners, so they had to continuously move their head above or below that corner," says Roche.

March 27, 2020

Walbro quickly re-tools the device to address concerns of the first users. The final version is made of polycarbonate optical grade material, the same stuff that is used to make safety glasses. The design is seamless. Without corners, there are no obstructed views. The shields are easy to clean and maneuver around. And they are light, just 3 to 3.5 pounds.

Walbro immediately delivers two samples to ProMedica Coldwater Regional Hospital. By the end of the week, Walbro has produced and delivered 7,200 shields.

March 31, 2020

Walbro engineers focus on refining the shield to add additional protective equipment.

The final version released at the end of March allows staff to attach a sheet onto the back edge of the shield at the patient’s shoulder. The sheet then stretches to cover the patient. The shield protects the staff when a patient coughs. The attached sheet prevents droplets from escaping into the air in the room.

Without those protections, nurse anesthetists have to intubate then wait 30 minutes for the air exchange to filter the room air before they can leave or before another doctor or nurse can enter.

"That's a long time," says Roche. "So, if we can capture more of that (aerosol spray) so it's not going to the whole room, then others can come in sooner and work can get done faster."

Additionally, gloves are attached to the arm holes creating another layer of protection as well as allowing nurses to get the tactile feedback to better do their jobs.

Moving Forward

The next phase for the face shields will include including a HEPA filter attachment on the side of the system. The HEPA filter allows healthcare providers to use a vacuum to pull and purify the contained air from the patient before or after intubation.

This week, Walbro announced it is developing a Mini-Ventilation Machine (MVM) that replaces a manual resuscitation bag. The bag needs to go through FDA testing, but the goal is to release it to hospitals this month.

"Walbro is doing this because we hear requests from the professionals, and we just think they are the heroes in this. We want to do something to stand behind them and support them," Roche says.

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