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Ventilator production breathes life into Thunder Bay Bombardier plant

Rail coach builder to apply its manufacturing muscle to assemble portable ventilator units

Credit some prescient thinking by a Thunder Bay emergency room physician for mobilizing Bombardier Canada to use its northwestern Ontario rail coach assembly plant to make much-needed ventilators for a southern Ontario resuscitation technology company.

Bombardier has signed on as a subcontractor to assist Brampton’s O-Two Medical Technologies to manufacture and supply their e700 portable ventilators for the Ontario government.

Units could be rolling out of the Montreal Street complex by month’s end and should put 40 to 50 mostly laid off employees on the assembly line for a three- to four-month production run.

A Bombardier news release said the initial purchase order is for 18,000 units.

The Montréal-headquartered transportation company’s involvement was made possible by the initiative taken by Thunder Bay-Rainy River MP Marcus Powlowski, a physician who’s spent roughly half of this three-decade career in emergency medicine.

Until he began Googling for Canadian medical ventilator companies, Powlowski admits he had no previous knowledge of the Brampton company except to quip, “I’ve been putting people on ventilators for the last 35 years.”

But in sizing up the coming global scope of COVID-19 earlier this year, Powlowski began pushing the concept that Canada needed to get a head start on this pandemic by stockpiling more ventilators.

He made the connection that the skill, expertise and capacity of the local Bombardier plant could probably fit the bill.

“I’ve been pushing the idea for a couple of months that we needed to be better prepared by having more ventilators. You can’t buy them at Canadian Tire.”

Over a month ago, he contacted Dave Black, Bombardier’s plant manager in Thunder Bay, and Dominic Pasqualino, president of Unifor Local 1075, to ask if something could be done.

“I asked Dominic: Can you make ventilators? And his response was: ‘We can make anything at Bombardier.’”

Powlowski then reached out to O-Two Medical and connected them with Bombardier to try and work something out.

“It seems they did. Fantastic. If they get them out the quickest, it’s a free-enterprise success story.”

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Due to the lack of mass transit contracts in the queue, Bombardier has been steadily scaling down its operations in Thunder Bay in the last year and half.

Where once there was a workforce of 1,100, only 420 remain on the floor, assembling the last 36 bi-level cars for Metrolinx.

The pandemic outbreak had resulted in Bombardier furloughing 70 per cent of its Canadian employees and halting all non-essential work, including idling the Thunder Bay plant.

At the same time, O-Two Medical’s parts supply chain in China had been disrupted, and some domestic manufacturing capacity was urgently needed to manufacture their portable e700 ventilators.

Black said Bombardier also helped them secure a Canadian supplier of injection-molded parts.

The molds were shipped in from overseas and the drawings sent to Bombardier.

“We had to look at it from our standpoint and see what scope (of work) can we do,” said Black.

Their plan is to dedicate an unused assembly area of the sprawling 550,000-square-foot building to set up a production line to do the finishing of the injection-molded parts, paint them and do the resistance testing – because of the electrostatic paint used – and the assembly of the internal working components.

The units will be packaged and shipped to southern Ontario for the final point of certified testing.

O-Two Medical is providing them with the components but there are still some unknowns in the assembly process that they’re still trying to finalize, Black said.

“We should, hopefully, be done by the end of day tomorrow because we’re going to start setting up our line next week.”

They hope to start calling people back to work the following week, if the parts arrive, for the start of an April 27 workweek. 

Black said other Bombardier operations won’t be contributing to this particular project, but other company sites are still doing COVID-19-related work.

One site is building Plexiglass enclosures for doctors and surgeons to use during procedures, and another is making face shields.

The Thunder Bay plant also donated N95 masks for essential service workers in the area.

“We’re trying to do our part to help out,” said Black.

Since the news leaked out, Black said he’s been inundated with local offers to supply workers and help transport the ventilator parts to their final destination.

“All these people are calling to lend a hand, and that’s amazing for me.”

Black, a long-time Bombardier employee who’s worked in the U.S. and recently transferred back to Canada, draws inspiration from the generosity he’s witnessed.

“It’s so nice to be back here again and to see how this country can come together in times of need. It’s wonderful to see.

“This is a great community and they stick together and will do whatever they can to support.

“When we started talking about this project here to see if there was any interest here, it was amazing how many people jumped on the bandwagon and said, sure Dave we’ll do whatever we can to help.”

Whether this could be a potential new business line for Bombardier, Black responded that it’s way too early for that.

“We do planes, trains and things like that, but you never know. Right now we just want to do our part and what we can do to help and see what the future holds.”

Powlowski said Thunder Bay factories have historically come through in times of national emergencies, mentioning the manufacturing of Hawker Hurricane fighter planes during the Second World War on the very same site as the Bombardier plant.

He added this situation underscores the often underappreciated and sometimes forgotten ability and expertise of Canadian industry to make essential goods, “and thankfully we still have that, including in Thunder Bay.”

“I think it’s a time of national need where the country comes together and tries to collectively solve our problems. This is a real opportunity for the City of Thunder Bay and for the workers of Bombardier to do something that they can really take pride in.”

Pasqualino gave all the credit to Powlowski and Black for working together to ensure that the job came through.

“We’re happy to see that work out. Maybe there could be more work in the future. We’re not sure, but any bit that we can do to solve this problem we’re very happy to do.”