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Made with Hanseatic passion - Dräger plant building

Made with Hanseatic passion

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Everything under control – even in a crisis

Exceptional circumstances reveal just how much a good organizational structure is worth. How else could production of ventilators quadruple within a matter of a few months? Insights into a carefully balanced combination of man, machine, and material.


Text Oliver Driesen     Photos Patrick Ohligschläger

The most astonishing thing of all is the sense of calm

The gallery on the first floor affords a view of the shop floor, a bright, spacious production hall on Lübeck’s Revalstraße. There seems to be nothing exciting going on below – no loud noises or hustle and bustle. And this place is supposed to be a current cornerstone of the global economy? Actually, yes, because hospitals from New York to Seoul and Sydney are pinning their hopes on these facilities and buildings, with a total area of around 30,000 square meters. 

This is where currently one of the most sought-after products on the global market is manufactured: the ventilator. One of the leading G7 countries alone would recently have loved to have placed an order for 100,000 of these, given that the lung disease COVID-19 caused by the coronavirus is keeping entire continents on tenterhooks. Heads of government and heads of state have been wanting to place urgent orders in person. In order to come anywhere close to meeting this need, the “factory of the future” – which opened back in 2017 – has massively ramped up its production capacity. 

So you would expect it to be hectic, with people gesticulating as they instruct the workforce to up the tempo in noisy, cramped conditions caused by additionally procured machinery. Instead, however, the employees are a model of composure as they purposefully go about their business. Every two hours, trains of linked trolleys travel from one production island to the next with parts and components. There are no improvised assembly lines to give any indication of the extra workload. There is more a suggestion of a factory ticking over with a workforce on reduced working hours due to the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Made with Hanseatic passion - Ventilators at Dräger in Lübeck

100,000 ventilators were requested in the biggest single order received by Dräger in Lübeck in the first six months of 2020 during the coronavirus crisis. 

Made with Hanseatic passion - Dräger production employees

300 additional employees have been hired in Lübeck alone to manufacture anaesthesia machines and especially ventilators to treat COVID-19 patients.

The three “Ms” are crucial: man, machine, materials

“Haste is the biggest enemy of quality,” says Stephan Schick, 42, head of order management in the therapy business unit at Dräger. “Mistakes inevitably happen when things get hectic.” And nowhere should this be avoided more than in a place that manufactures life-saving technology. That is why one of the most important tasks for people like Schick is to offer the production teams a converse climate in these exceptional circumstances: “Our team must remain physically and mentally fit, which is why we radiate precisely this sense as managers – in order to send a signal that we are firmly focused on the processes and are taking carefully considered decisions.” Despite many a strain, this is made possible by the typical Hanseatic passion that has also made Dräger a great company. It goes without saying that world events are being monitored very carefully in Lübeck, where the images of overburdened hospitals are also etched in people’s minds. Stephan Kruse, head of the therapy business unit, tries to distance himself from these images as much as possible: “I cannot allow myself to get caught up in the emotionality of it all, otherwise I am unable to make the quick decisions that have been necessary since the start of the year.” The 50-year-old has had to make quick decisions since day one of the crisis. The three big “M’s” had to be primed for a massive production expansion: man, machine, and materials!

Made with Hanseatic passion - Measurements and functional tests

A ventilator must achieve 100 percent in the testing room before it can be delivered. The functional tests and measurements take several hours – per machine.

Made with Hanseatic passion - 800 components per machine

Up to 800 components per machine – like these sensitive coils – come from an average of 120 suppliers from all over the world.

Made with Hanseatic passion - Two-shift system at Dräger

Two-shift system: This was introduced in the first quarter of 2020, due to the huge demand. There is a 30-minute safety period between the shifts in order to avoid contact.

Keep your distance

From this point onward, the number of production employees also increased – up to 300 new jobs are set to be created by August 2020. Due to the situation, the frequently lamented skills shortage in Germany is currently not an issue. The new employees are coming from companies in other sectors who have had to lay off staff members. Some newcomers are already familiar with Dräger, perhaps from the neighboring heat therapy business unit, which manufactures incubators among other things. This prior knowledge makes it easier and quicker to retrain these people to work on ventilators and anesthesia machines.

The high-pressure operation on Revalstraße cannot be compromised by the induction process: “Accordingly, we have set up a training workshop in the electronics building at our company headquarters on Moislinger Allee,” says Kruse. “This is where new employees are trained before they can become productive in the production halls on Revalstraße.” It is also important to think about the health of the employees because it would be twice as devastating if the virus were to spread here. “We are usually able to maintain a safe distance of two meters in the production halls,” says Dirk Geisteier, 55, head of production for ventilators and heat therapy machines. “Where this isn’t possible – during face to-face talks, for example – particle-filtering face masks are worn.” Stephan Schick adds: “We have now switched to a two-shift system, strictly separating both groups by keeping them physically apart and introducing a 30-minute window between the shifts so that they do not even meet in the first place.” If somebody became infected, the other groups would not be affected.

The stars have been aligned for the machines – the second “M” – from the very start. Many aspects of the new production halls have already been conceived and designed to cope with potential growth and maximum flexibility – the existing capacity utilization was running at 75 percent at the end of 2019. As such, it has not been necessary to set up new production lines to any great extent or reinvent the wheel. The digitally controlled high-rack warehouse, meanwhile, sometimes stocks up to 800 parts and components for a ventilator.

Motivated against the coronavirus – a completely new team spirit

They are brought to the individual assembly lines just in time on the milk run, a kind of regularly scheduled train. The corresponding testing equipment checks the functionality of the finished units. The company also had to stock up on these sensitive testing machines in order to make sure they were available in sufficient numbers at all times. They require cooling-down periods after a certain running time in order to guarantee errorfree measurements. Restructuring measures over the past year have also led to the reorganization of the medical technology business unit – this has also helped Dräger to cope with the once-in-a-century challenge currently being faced. “The initiated changes also involve the customers,” says Dirk Geisteier, a master toolmaker by trade and a business economist. “How we deal with one another, for example: trust, communication on an equal footing, and listening carefully to your opposite number.” People used to focus primarily on their own area and look around them less often. Decisions are now taken and implemented more quickly.

“All of this also helps people to work more calmly,” says Geisteier, explaining the background noise in the production hall. A new unit also emerged from the restructuring measures: customer order excellence (COE). Customer orders are now handled by a single team, from the procurement, receipt, and storage of materials to the various production lines and order management and shipping. Everyone involved acts in concert here. “This has quite a few advantages and is one reason why we managed to double our production by the end of March 2020,” says Stephan Schick. “We are now working with the same intensity to quadruple the production of ventilators over the course of the year – to around 1,000 machines per week.”

Made with Hanseatic passion - Man, machine, materials

The three “Ms” are crucial: man, machine, materials

Made with Hanseatic passion - Packing and shipping

Two hours is the time interval of each milk run, when the train delivers a new haul of finished machines for packaging and shipping.

More than just machines

Nobody should think that this reorganization alone has made the company immune to unpleasant surprises. This is evident in the third “M” – the material. The individual components of the ventilators are supplied by manufacturers from all over the world, which have also had to significantly ramp up their capacity.

If one of the fragile supply chains gets overstretched as a result and supply gaps open up, a second manufacturer for some components cannot suddenly be magicked out of a hat. Yet the long journey from the receipt of an order to the delivery of a machine has thus far not been the stuff of nightmares for the head of production logistics, André Sieber, 40: “After 20 years in the job, it may still be a challenging situation, but I haven’t had any sleepless nights over it, because the entire chain actually works very well.” When an expected consignment of ventilators “Made in Lübeck” arrives at a hospital or an improvised medical facility somewhere in the world, the journey doesn’t end for Dräger.

“Our portfolio embraces a much broader range of services than the actual delivery of the machines,” says Stephan Kruse. It also includes accompanying training measures for users who have only just been recruited as care workers, for example. “We also provide training websites and videos to support our customers. However we have to assume that some hospitals will not always have highly qualified staff operating the machines.” In intensive care units and operating rooms the supply lines are usually preinstalled in the technical infrastructure. But what happens when they are completely absent in quickly erected medical facilities in some places? Dräger has also thought of that, says Kruse: “My colleague and his team on the infrastructure side of the business managed to come up with a solution for mobile gas supply within a short space of time.” This involved mounting one gas column for oxygen and another for compressed air on a frame. These systems on wheels could also be installed in hotels or on cruise ships with transportable compressors.

All of us want to help

Even the coronavirus pandemic will one day be history. One question is whether the improvised makeshift changes implemented in production will then be reversed. Dirk Geisteier doesn’t take this view: “We will definitely keep some things, such as the single functional testing of certain components. We used to test some parts twice before the coronavirus pandemic – sometimes before or during the production process and then again afterwards. The redundancy only came to light when planning to ramp up production. Another workflow optimization measure was discovered during so-called customizing. The modification of a standard machine to meet a customer’s special requirements used to be carried out in a different part of the hall to where the basic machine is assembled. It had to be transported back and forth specifically for this purpose. “It has now been integrated into the production line,” says Geisteier. “This significantly reduces the throughput time.”

However, until the end o f the biggest health emergency the world has witnessed thus far in the 21st century, Revalstraße will continue to produce ventilators (the Evita V800, Savina, and Oxylog 3000 plus, among others) and anesthesia machines (Atlan and Perseus, among others) for many months to come. The fact that the company has been able to achieve this is also primarily down to the colleagues on the shop floor – people like Tobias Germann. The 40-year-old assembler, who has been at the company since 2012, feels the sense of responsibility just as much as the rest of his colleagues, particularly toward the countries that have been hardest hit by the virus: “None of us would say ‘What do Italy, Spain, the UK, the US, and other countries have to do with me?’ No, all of us want to help!” After a brief pause, he adds: “If I were in the shoes of a COVID-19 patient and urgently needed artificial ventilation, I would also want people elsewhere to do everything they could."

Supply chains

It is only one of 800 components, but no functioning ventilator would ever reach the market without this “moistener”. It prevents the mucous membranes from

drying out during artificial ventilation. The manufacturer of this component is one of dozens of suppliers worldwide from which Dräger sources the parts for its machines. It is based in New Zealand! The coronavirus also struck here. 

So how are these components supposed to arrive in Lübeck on time? The global air freight connections and passenger flights largely ground to a halt at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Many unexpected situations demonstrated how global just-in-time logistics can be maintained with improvisation and a great deal of team spirit in spite of the pressure. For instance, another batch of urgently needed components, which had arrived at Frankfurt Airport via air freight, had to be transported to the production halls in Lübeck as quickly as possible – but it was stuck in customs. “Our experts in customs clearance, transport, and assembly logistics then managed to get the goods to us within 24 hours,” says Stephan Kruse, head of Dräger’s

therapy business unit. The will to find a swift solution is very much in evidence throughout the entire team. Aside from the coronavirus crisis, the company is contemplating taking appropriate measures to deal with the high logistics costs and increasing isolation of some countries. “We may have to adopt a more decentralized setup and establish more final value creation in large economic regions,” says Kruse. Ultimately, production must go on.

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