When a critical vaccine must be stored at sub-zero temperatures, Blaze Technical Services rose to the challenge
By Andy Jensen
In the early months of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had the attention of the United States Government. Daily infection rates and subsequent death rates were increasing at an alarming rate. The White House needed a plan that would remove bureaucratic hurdles, provide financial assistance, and pave a clear path for a vaccine to be developed, tested, and distributed as quickly as possible.
The resulting plan was dubbed Operation Warp Speed, taking a page from Star Trek lore to emphasize the plan’s emphasis on rapid progress, with a single objective: Faster approval and production of a vaccine.
The plan was bold. And when it was officially announced on May 15, 2020, when 22,845 new cases and 1,367 deaths were reported every day, the United States needed a bold plan.
In an opinion piece written by Peter Pitts for The Washington Times, nearly a year later in 2021, Pitts writes, “Operation Warp Speed recognized that all of the members of the health care ecosystem (the innovative biopharmaceutical industry, academia, government, transnational organizations and providers) had to work as a team to solve the many difficult scientific and public health problems created by a new, highly infectious and deadly virus… Warp Speed had to design expedited regulatory review criteria and coordinate manufacturing capabilities on a global scale.”
The background behind Operation Warp Speed lays the groundwork and paints the scene for a phone call placed to Blaze Technical Services April 2020. Brian Hickman, the operations manager at Blaze took the call.
“The sense of urgency that came through the call was something I’ve never experienced before,” says Hickman. “We were asked to produce a prototype temperature probe under strict confidentiality, and we delivered. Very soon after that we were asked for a thousand, then they would say ‘can you get us 2,000?’ then they’d say ‘can you get us 10,000?”
The pressure to manufacture the probe in high numbers was new to Blaze. Brian explains, “We’re not a high production type of shop. We’re a custom shop. The numbers they were asking for were far beyond what we had ever done. We weren’t sure what the probe was for, although we understood that whatever function it provided was considered a national priority.”
The team at Blaze began to ramp up production. Immediately they ran into several hurdles, but one in particular threatened the plan for mass production. The probe’s element, the part that measures temperature, was connected to a 24 AWG stranded copper wire with a Teflon jacket. The other end of the wire was connected to a port that would connect to a device that would display, record, or transmit the temperature data.
“We needed a stronger weld than what our plasma welders were able to deliver,” says Ralph Hickman, president at Blaze, but an engineer at heart. “When we increased the energy, the heat would melt the Teflon jacket. What we needed was a more focused weld. I was familiar with laser welders and thought it would solve the problem for us. So, I called Sunstone.”
The pinpoint accuracy of a laser welder, combined with digital control over the amount of energy delivered and how the energy is delivered was exactly what Blaze needed. “That was half the problem,” Ralph recalls. “Although I knew the laser created a strong weld that didn’t damage the wire’s jacket, I wasn’t sure the laser could stand up to the production numbers I needed. And there was also a concern about operator training. We had very little time to put it all together and a long training curve would not be welcome.”
The Blaze team was pleasantly surprised. “The first laser arrived, an Orion LZR 60, and we immediately put it to work. Our team picked it up really fast. It easily kept up with production rates, was highly accurate, and generated little heat,” says Ralph. “We ordered a total of six Orion LZR’s and they did the job for us.”
Bryce Bytheway, the laser welding consultant at Sunstone who took Ralph’s order for welders remembers the call. “Frankly, we scrambled to fulfill Ralph’s order for five more laser welders. He made it very clear they needed them immediately. For us it was all hands on deck to make it happen.”
With the welding challenge hurdled, the Blaze team still needed to build a high-production assembly line and find suppliers. Ralph calculated that to complete the order for the probe, they would need 3.5 million feet of wire. Of course, he ran into more roadblocks. “Nobody has 3.5 million feet of wire in stock,” he explains. “That’s 663 miles of wire. With the help of my team, we contacted TE Wire and Cable and Dynamic Temperature Supply and told them what we needed. Of course both suppliers laughed at us, which we expected. But after we explained, both suppliers rolled up their sleeves and said, ‘what can we do to help?’”
Blaze also had to solve the issue of finding enough elements to fulfill the order. They turned to a supplier based in Germany who demonstrated their commitment by building a new production facility specifically for Blaze. “Every element that facility produced went directly to us,” says Ralph.
By August 2020 Blaze was now producing 4,000 probes every day, an impressive number. More impressive was how they got there. “This is a great source of pride for the company,” says Ralph. “I’m proud of our people, very pleased with their effort. They put together a plan and then had an assembly line up and running in ten days.” Hickman, who values a work-life balance, was concerned the project would keep his workers from families but says they were able to keep their over time in check. “We worked a few Saturdays, but my team was able to be with their families. And we couldn’t have done that without the laser welders.”
Even before they began full production, Blaze was left in the dark about the probe’s application. While it was clear they played a part in the United State’s efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, how exactly remained a bit unclear. Some members of the team, after reading news articles, speculated the probe had something to do with shipping the vaccine. The vaccine required a storage temperature of -80° F, which fit within the specs Blaze had been given when designing the probe.
Not until September 8, 2020, did all the pieces come together. On national television, during a White House press briefing, Ralph and his team saw their probe in full display. “We were under a tight NDA and to see it all shown on national television was interesting,” he recalls.
To ship COVID-19 vaccine around the country a special shipping box had to be designed. The fundamental packing isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, but the recording and tracking of the box is new. Dry ice lines all sides of an interior box packed with 1,000 doses, capable of maintaining a -80° F temperature for up to 10 days. If more ice is added, the doses remain viable for up to 30 days, which is key for medical facilities that lack adequate storage freezers.
The Blaze probe monitors the temperature surrounding the doses, relaying this data to a minicomputer for storage and transmission. Using a cellular network, the data is transmitted to a central monitoring facility. In addition to temperature, another probe monitors humidity, a GPS tracker provides real time location, and another device records the number of times the box is opened. At any time, the vaccine manufacturer knows the location of any box and its disposition.
For Blaze, which manufactured a total of 350,000 probes, the adventure is pretty much over. For Brian, Ralph, and everyone at Blaze, they have a story to tell the grandkids when they are asked about the great COVID-19 pandemic. “It was a surreal experience,” Ralph recounts. “Many times, my team and I were living in the moment and solving problems on the fly. What I saw as a simple business opportunity in the beginning, turned into a fulfilling experience. And we couldn’t have done it without the laser welders.”
Brian concurs. “Everyone helped out with production. It didn’t matter what your job title was; we leveraged the individual skill set of every team member to get the job done. You ask any other probe manufacturer if they could do 350,000 probes in a year and they’d balk. We sprinted for a full year and we’re proud of what we accomplished. We could not have done it without the laser welder.”
The Sunstone line of Orion LZR benchtop laser welders consists of five different models, each providing a different energy range, from 35 Joules up 180 Joules. The Orion LZR stands apart from other laser welders for its broader feature list, such as on-board HD cameras with an HDMI video port, argon gas connections, compressed air nozzles, larger color touchscreens, and advanced digital interfaces for better energy control.
“What I like about the Blaze story is the positivity, the we-can-do-this approach exhibited by the Blaze team,” says Sunstone’s CEO, Jonathan Young. “They came together to solve a national emergency and did so marvelously. I tip my hat to them for what they accomplished. Sunstone sells welders to many different companies who are pushing the envelope in aerospace, electric vehicles, medical devices, and the arts. Many of these stories we can’t share. In this case, with Blaze, when we can share the story, it’s rare and valuable.”