At the entrance to the classified production line in the Israel Aerospace Industry complex hangs a sign: "Lifesaving production line – no entrance to Corona." The compound, which typically produces missiles, air defense systems and satellites, has rushed to create a production line that meets an equally crucial need – respirators that will help COVID-19 patients in critical condition. Since operations started ten days ago, the factory has manufactured dozens of machines and handed them over to the Israeli health system, in the event that thousands of patients will need ventilation.
Employees like Aviv say that the idea to produce ventilators came from the workers themselves. Aviv, an aerospace worker, says it all started about a month ago when he talked to his wife about the lack of respiratory machines in Israel. "She said, 'You have production lines, why are the IAI production lines not being used to produce respirators?'" After their conversation, he contacted Boaz Levy, VP of IAI and director of the Aerospace Systems Division. "Boaz immediately gave me the green light," continues Aviv. "My wife and I started looking for relevant companies to make contacts. By that weekend, some of the companies had already met with employees at IAI."
The initiative, which is backed by the Ministry of Defense, also relies on a collaboration with the Raanana-based company Invitech. Invitech manufactures Ventway Sparrow ventilators, which are turbine-powered, lightweight, and easy-to-use ventilators for use on both children and adults. According to the IAI, their device complies with strict medical standards and is currently used in hospitals and emergency medical services in Israel and around the world. "Our advantage was that their production is based in Israel," says Aviv.
Within a few days, Aviv and his friends, who include technologists and aerospace engineers, began refitting IAI’s production line for a new product. "We can produce hundreds of ventilators a week, depending on the raw materials we receive," says Aviv. “We’re ready to work around the clock as soon as the materials arrive – everyone here will take part. What our company brings to the table is the ability to get a production process up-and-running in a short time-frame. We know how to engineer solutions quickly. Invitech gets the final sign-off on the machines themselves, because they are the medical authority, but we know how to offer solutions."
IAI volunteers working the production line are careful to adhere to the Ministry of Health’s guidelines. "The entrance is strictly monitored, and everyone who passes through gets their temperature taken. We clean our hands with alcohol, and we wear gloves and a robe. There’s a cap on the number of people who can enter the production line. We also made a buffer between shifts so that workers on the first shift don’t come into contact with workers from the second shift. If God forbid, somebody is infected, we can immediately start a new shift," says Aviv.
According to Aviv, the project has been met with an outpouring of volunteers looking to help. "I get calls all the time from friends. Everybody in the company tells me, 'I want to volunteer.' Even people who at staying at home due to the guidelines, they contact me, and volunteer to help from home and look for solutions to problems that arise. We all feel that we have a shared mission, a shared struggle and war – and everyone is enlisting. People usually don't like working 24/7, but there no one raised an eyebrow when we were starting round-the-clock production. Everyone stood up and said, we’ll do whatever it takes. It's good to see that workers are mobilizing for the country, their parents, their families. During wartime, we produce missiles for the IDF. This is a different kind of war, so we're going to make ventilators."
In addition to producing ventilators, IAI has continued its regular operations. "We are an essential business, so we continue to operate under the emergency regulations," says Aviv. "I’m continuing my regular role in the technology factory, which provides infrastructure for the division – manufacturing, procurement, operations, logistics, engineering, etcetera. The ventilators are produced in a separate facility, where there’s no classified material."
Aviv, who lives in in Petah Tikva with his wife and two children, says his wife is also involved in the development of the respirator. How does a couple who developing and manufacturing ventilators cope when their children are home all day? "We are both essential workers, and we hardly see each other these days," says Aviv, "The children are surviving in the meantime. What can we do? We can’t bring them to their grandparents. At first, they had online classes, and now they watch a lot of TV. They‘re too young to stay at home alone, so we divide the time. Some time I come home from work for two hours, sometimes she does. We are juggling. It's tough, but these are also interesting times."
In a country where about a quarter of the workers have been laid off or furloughed, Aviv is grateful for his job, and for the support provided by the company and the workers' committee. "At IAI, management and the workers' committee reached an agreement that allows everyone to continue to receive a salary, and hopefully return to full hours when the crisis is over. Everyone who can, including those who don’t work on something classified, is working to work from home. There is a lot of support for those who are ill or in isolation. At times when you need help, you suddenly feel the IAI family."
Brought to press with the help of the International Relations Division of the Histadrut