UWM students helping Foxconn gear up for ventilator production

Four undergraduate students in University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s College of Engineering & Applied Science are helping to pave the way for ventilator production at Foxconn’s Mount Pleasant facility.

Foxconn announced in April that it was partnering with Medtronic to produce a portable version of the life-supporting medical devices that can ease respiratory distress in COVID-19 patients. According to USA Today, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is paying nine companies, including Medtronic, $2.9 billion to produce or acquire more than 187,000 ventilators by year’s end to ensure that the country is prepared for a fall resurgence of the virus.

The UWM students – Tim Dachelet, David Charapata, Brett Fong and Benjamin Stamates — were slated to spend the spring semester in Taiwan, along with seven other UWM engineering students, as part of an engineering co-op among UWM, Foxconn and Chung Yuan Christian University in Taiwan. Fong and Dachelet are majoring in mechanical engineering; Stamates is majoring in computer science; and Charapata is majoring in biomedical engineering.

Disappointment, then reward

That internship had just begun, although the students had not yet left for Taiwan, when the Wisconsin Department of Health Services issued a Safer at Home order to help minimize the spread of COVID-19. At that point, all the students were sent home from Foxconn’s plant to work remotely.

“We got called back in to work on the ventilator production project,” Fong said. “I didn’t expect to be dropped into something this important, but I’m glad I was.”

Stamates agrees. “It was disappointing that we weren’t able to go to Taiwan, but gaining work experience with a company like Foxconn has been a huge boon,” he said. “It’s been stressful and there has been a ton of work on our plates – challenges and hurdles to overcome. But it’s been incredibly rewarding to know my work will actually have an impact.”

The students are working in areas including equipment procurement, item calibration, assembly line construction, and software engineering and testing, according to Robert Chou, program supervisor for Foxconn Skunkwork.

Students ‘have performed like an A team’

“They are helping to accelerate a process that demands great attention to detail,” Chou said.  “The normal set-up time for a project like this runs 12 to 18 months. Now we are doing it in record time, and I give the students a lot of credit for this. They have performed like an A team, taking ‘mission impossible’ and making it happen.”

Dachelet, who works as a process engineer on the ventilator project, says he’s enjoyed being exposed to a rapid implementation process that includes designing an assembly line, developing operating procedures, ordering equipment, assembling and testing station setups to be used for production, and completing all necessary paperwork.

“We’re pushing, pushing, pushing every day,” he said. “The teamwork is incredible.”

The four students have also been trained in the procedures and regulations of good manufacturing practices, production part approval process, and gage calibrations for the software.

‘Incredibly interesting’

The students agree that they’ve gained respect for the mandates and documentation required in the production of medical equipment and supplies. And that the unexpected fork in their road has delivered them into a rare and rewarding learning experience.

“It has been incredibly interesting,” Charapata said, “and I learned so much about what goes into building a project from the ground up.”

Foxconn is abiding by Gov. Tony Evers’ emergency orders and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prevention guidelines, the company said. Certain employees are working from home, while assembly employees undergo safety protocols including body temperature screenings upon entry to any Foxconn facility, routine handwashing and compliance with recommended guidelines for the use of personal protective equipment.

Last year, 10 students from UWM’s College of Engineering & Applied Science participated in the co-op program — which is Foxconn’s first in Wisconsin. They studied at Chung Yuan Christian University and worked at a Foxconn facility in Taiwan. This year, 11 co-op students are taking part in the program, although due to the COVID-19 virus, none traveled to Taiwan. Of these, four joined the Wisconsin-based ventilator project while seven are working on a variety of engineering projects for the Mount Pleasant facility.

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