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Updated: June 2, 2020

Westbrook manufacturer fast-tracks machine for COVID-19 testing part

Courtesy / Lanco Integrated Matt Mingo, a manufacturing project leader at Lanco Integrated, is seen here building a machine to assemble mini-spin column systems, a component in coronavirus testing kits.

In March, Westbrook-based Lanco Integrated, which makes robotic mass-assembly systems, took on a job calling it to manufacture a machine that puts together critical coronavirus test components.

Typically, making that kind of machine would take an estimated 35 weeks, including design, engineering and manufacturing.

Putting in an all-out work schedule, the team at Lanco had the machine ready for tests in eight weeks.

“When the request came in for the spin column machine to be ready in eight weeks, I immediately thought this is crazy,” said Jake Rollins, a Lanco engineer. “We can't build a machine in eight weeks. But then my next thought was, ‘There has to be a way to do it.’”

Rollins and another engineer, David Raymond, led the project, which was commissioned by QIAGEN, a company headquartered in the Netherlands that makes sample and assay technologies for molecular diagnostics.

QIAGEN contacted Lanco at the outbreak of COVID-19, according to an article QIAGEN wrote up for its in-house magazine.

QIAGEN needed a machine that could assemble mini-spin column systems, a key component in testing kits for the coronavirus, at its production facility in Germantown, Md. To meet the request, the machine needed to be ready in eight weeks, less than a quarter of the time it usually takes to build,

The Lanco team leaned on existing technology based on a machine it had built for QIAGEN 20 years ago, then transformed it to meet specifications that required the new machine to produce 6,000 spin columns per hour, or almost a million per week. 

Working remotely during the pandemic, the engineering team developed processes on the fly, said Rollins.

“For material procurement, for example, we were preordering stuff before we were typically ready to, knowing that we had to kind of put our money on the table up front and put a bet on what we were going to use for us to be able to receive it on time,” he said.

The bet paid off, however, and the design phase, which would normally take five to six weeks, was completed in six days.

The effort included collaboration with QIAGEN offices in Germany and Maryland, and daily meetings working around the time differences. 

“In the beginning, we were working seven days a week until midnight or 2 o'clock in the morning to get everything pushed through,” said Rollins. 

Overall, the Lanco team designing and building the 60-foot machine comprised 20 to 25 people, working across two shifts around the clock, he said.

“We're finding out really quickly that we can get a lot more done with the tools that we already have available,” he said. “We were thrown into the fire on how quickly we can adapt, both in design-build and in every phase of our company.”

Added Raymond, “There are opportunities for expediting our build process that we never thought possible. The effort that we're putting into the QIAGEN machine has really opened our eyes as a company as to what we can accomplish with a common goal.”

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