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Planet Money: The Parable Of The Piston


The pandemic has created an immediate need for more ventilators, potentially hundreds of thousands more. They can keep some people alive when extremely sick. Ventilators are made up of hundreds of different parts, so coordinating their production is incredibly complex. Kenny Malone and Karen Duffin of the NPR podcast Planet Money watched the scramble to make just one of those parts.

KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: Todd Olson hasn't slept much in the last two weeks.

TODD OLSON: I've been working till about 10, 11 o'clock at night, so you might just have to make me work till midnight.

KAREN DUFFIN, BYLINE: Olson is the CEO of Twin City Die Castings company. Most of his business was car parts until General Motors and Ford stopped production a few weeks ago.

MALONE: And that is what set into motion what we're calling the parable of the piston.

OLSON: So just like in an automobile, it's a piston. But it's much smaller.

DUFFIN: Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. And we're in this strange moment where there is a direct connection between life and death and how fast Todd Olson can make that piston.

MALONE: The piston parable starts in an office near Seattle.

CHRIS KIPLE: We were getting these phone calls from ministers of health, presidents of countries, all looking for ventilators.

DUFFIN: Chris Kiple is CEO of Ventec; they make specialized ventilators. And Kiple says the single biggest challenge to making more ventilators is the supply chain.

KIPLE: Our device has about 700 components, the majority of which are custom. We source from about 80 different suppliers from around the world.

MALONE: To source a new, giant volume of parts for more ventilators, they needed help. They partnered with General Motors.

DUFFIN: Yes, GM makes cars, but they also have the supply chain of Chris Kiple's dreams. And now that was at his disposal.

KIPLE: They literally woke up their entire supply chain team on Saturday morning at 6 a.m. to source 700 parts.

DUFFIN: In a small tool shop in Minneapolis, Minn., Todd Olson heard the call.

OLSON: GM put out a mass email to anybody in our industry that they've worked with. Project V needs die castings.

MALONE: Project V - they were calling it Project V?

OLSON: Project V. That's right. Yep, ventilator.

MALONE: If it's supposed to be a secret, it's not a good secret nickname.

DUFFIN: (Laughter).

OLSON: Well, you got to have a project name. It makes you feel like James Bond or something.

DUFFIN: One of the pieces GM is helping Ventec find is that little metal piston.

MALONE: Todd Olson's company can make that piston. But a normal order would be, like, a few hundred a month. GM wanted 20,000.

OLSON: And normally, this would take about 12 weeks for us to get into production. We were directed that it's not going to be 12 weeks. It's going to be as fast as you can possibly do it.

MALONE: What goes through your mind?

OLSON: We'd better make this happen.

DUFFIN: The thing about this scramble to make more ventilators is that this same conversation has to happen hundreds of times. If any of those hundreds of ventilator parts gets held up, the whole effort to save lives gets held up.

MALONE: Here is what it looks like to scale up just one part - the piston.

DUFFIN: To make lots of pistons at once, Todd Olson needs a mold - a serious varsity mold - steel, almost two tons but also precise to the micron.

MALONE: Olson got that GM email five days before we talked. His company immediately called another company in Michigan to order that piston mold.

OLSON: They came back and said, we can probably do it a lot faster than you think.

DUFFIN: Because everyone knows this is a life-or-death mold. So Michigan pulls in all of its engineers, runs the shop around the clock all weekend long.

MALONE: Todd pulls in all of his engineers, even the ones who are now managers - not anymore. You're an engineer again.

DUFFIN: Meanwhile, Todd's other engineers start running computer simulations. What's the optimal speed for pouring molten aluminum into this new mold?

MALONE: Too slow and the mold doesn't fill.

DUFFIN: Too fast and the piece has bubbles.

MALONE: This is months' worth of man-hours condensed into a single long weekend.

DUFFIN: And while we were talking to Todd Olson, he was checking his computer for updates on the mold.

MALONE: Yeah, I just received pictures right now of them loading the tooling up into...

MALONE: Wait, right now, while we're talking, you got that picture?

OLSON: Right now, when we're talking. And they're probably somewhere around Gary, Ind., now. I'm not sure, but they're on the road. And I plan on being in our plant early tomorrow because I want to see these historic first parts out there.


MALONE: Yeah. Is there any universe in which we could kind of be there telephonically when that first part is made?

OLSON: I bet - I bet you we can do that.

MALONE: Yeah, it's pretty loud there.

DUFFIN: At 8:06 a.m. the next morning, less than a week after the GM email, Olson FaceTimed us from his factory floor.

MALONE: I see a lot of buttons. Like, there's - somebody pressing a lot of buttons.

OLSON: Yes, exactly.

DUFFIN: There's a group of guys watching the head engineer inject the molten aluminum and then open the mold.

OLSON: So there it is.

MALONE: So that's it. That's one of the pistons right there.

OLSON: Well, those are the first piston parts for Project V - part of history right now. I'm going to get out of their way here. They've got some work to do. And...

MALONE: OK. How are you feeling right now?

OLSON: I'm feeling awesome. This is pretty cool. We've been in business a hundred years, and this might well be our biggest moment in a hundred years.

MALONE: That is quite a statement, Todd.


DUFFIN: Todd's piston will be machined and sent to Ventec to put inside their ventilators.

MALONE: Do you know how long it will be before, like, one of those pistons ends up in a ventilator in a hospital, saving somebody's life?

OLSON: We plan to be producing ventilators within weeks.

MALONE: Again, CEO of Ventec Chris Kiple.

KIPLE: It's highly probable that that piston will be responsible for helping save someone's life in April.

DUFFIN: For companies like Ventec and GM to make so many more ventilators, to change course as quickly as possible, they need hundreds of Todd Olsons to also simultaneously change course as quickly as possible.

MALONE: Ventec says it has found all of its Todd Olsons - all 700 parts - and hopes to make tens of thousands of its ventilators per month. Kenny Malone.

DUFFIN: Karen Duffin, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE END OF THE OCEAN'S "SELF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kenny Malone
Kenny Malone is a correspondent for NPR's Planet Money podcast. Before that, he was a reporter for WNYC's Only Human podcast. Before that, he was a reporter for Miami's WLRN. And before that, he was a reporter for his friend T.C.'s homemade newspaper, Neighborhood News.
Karen Duffin (she/her) is a co-host and reporter for Planet Money, NPR's award-winning podcast that finds creative, entertaining ways to make sense of the big, complicated forces that move our economy. She joined the team in March 2018.