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Race against time: Inside 1 of the world's largest ventilator factories

Since COVID-19 emerged, Hamilton Medical has steadily increased production.

In a small, idyllic town in the Swiss Alps, a factory buzzes nonstop.

Inside, there are some 350 workers pulling double shifts and working weekends, working around the clock, all toward a common goal: help save the world from a potentially devastating shortage of vital medical devices.

"Everyone is well aware of the responsibility that has fallen upon us," Bob Hamilton, CEO of Hamilton Medical, one of the world’s largest producers of ventilators, told ABC News. “We will do everything humanly possible to provide as many ventilators as possible to save as many lives as possible."

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  • Hamilton Medical, which typically produces about 15,000 of the devices a year, has ramped up production about 40%, multiple employees told ABC News. More staffers have been hired, and existing workers were retrained to help meet the demand.

    Over 100 countries have placed ventilator orders with Hamilton, one of the only privately held manufacturers of the devices. Hamilton, who's based in the U.S., told ABC News the firm is trying to prioritize countries with the highest spike in confirmed cases.

    But many of the same fears about a ventilator shortage that have weighed on public health officials are gripping those at Hamilton Medical.

    "Nobody in their wildest dreams would have ever thought that we'd need tens of thousands of ventilators," President Donald Trump said Thursday at the White House, although others predicted a shortfall. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said his state has about 5,000 but will likely need 30,000.

    Hamilton told ABC News he's approached the U.S. Department of Defense because he wants to help and that the agency is trying to cut through bureaucratic obstacles that could bring Hamilton’s automated ventilator technology to the United States.

    The machines, which are used in nearly every market but the U.S., must receive approval from the Food and Drug Administration or a possible "emergency use authorization," which allows for an immediate trial and could mean these automated ventilators could be in U.S. hospitals very soon, Hamilton said.

    "We are making significant progress," Hamilton told ABC News. "I have never had such positive feedback from the DOD on anything else. A lot of red tape is being cut."

    Inside the production facility in Bonaduz, Switzerland, 43-year-old Andrin Putzi is one of those working on the assembly line. He said he can't recall the last time he had a day off. The former car mechanic, a father of two, said the impact of his work really hit him when his 10-year-old son told him he was proud of the work he does, and that he understands why his dad isn't home on the weekends.

    "Everyone who has a job that works with theirs hands needs to know they can build something. It's important,” Putzi said.

    Each machine takes about 45 minutes to build, Hamilton said. Employees start with the framework, adding components as they walk it down an assembly line about the length of a bowling alley. They will see it through to completion, when the ventilator is then tested and then transported to the warehouse for shipment.

    Even if the machines can move quickly to hospitals, they still need someone to operate them, medical experts have cautioned.

    "When you are talking about ICU care, ventilators don't run themselves," ABC News Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton said. "They need respiratory therapists, they need critical care nurses. That's definitely a concern."

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