Calumet Electronics Has Been Boarding Up During Covid

Upper Peninsula manufacturer helped meet spike in ventilator demand and now has pivoted to other booming markets.

Remember when hospitals all over the world were clamoring for ventilators? That was so Early Covid. Here in Mid-Covid, demand for ventilators has eased as doctors have come to understand the virus better and supplies of the machine have climbed. But the call for all sorts of other medical equipment remains strong.

Calumet Electronics showed up big-time to help meet the world’s acute demand for ventilators early in the pandemic. And now the maker of printed circuit boards that dominates tiny Calumet, Michigan, has pivoted smartly to meet rising demand for its components for medical equipment such as X-ray and MRI machines as well as boards used in energy grids, avionics, aerospace and defense markets.

“There’s pride in our workforce, and making boards for ventilators for the COVID-19 effort meant we could do something productive and lifesaving for our country and for the world,” Meredith LaBeau, director of process engineering, told Chief Executive. T-shirts issued to the 300 employees of the $30-million manufacturer read, “The Greatest Component Is Our People.”

Doctors’ early understanding of the Covid-19 respiratory virus called for a global ramp-up of production of ventilators. That put U.S. manufacturers in a pinch because most of the circuit boards for such machines were made in Asia. “Very few companies are FDA-certified to produce medical devices,” LaBeau explained. “Only about three companies in the United States could service that demand, and we are one of them. And for a while, all of the Asian manufacturers were shut down.”

So at Calumet Electronics, pandemic-related demand for circuit boards for ventilators rapidly pulled more than 50 major orders forward to last March from as far out as 2021, Rob Cooke, director of engineering services, told Chief Executive. The company ended up increasing production by as much as 38 percent compared with pre-pandemic levels. Today it is still outputting 26 percent more boards than a year ago.

“We worked a lot of overtime and shifted a lot of our resources that normally were involved in sales and engineering, to production,” Cooke said. “We were working second and third shifts to try to bring home some of these components.”

Suddenly becoming a focus of global manufacturing attention was new to Calumet. It was founded in 1968 with the hope of jolting a sputtering local economy that, just a half-century earlier, had been booming because of mining of the local copper deposits. Calumet sits in the middle of the Keweenaw Peninsula, the northernmost part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that juts into Lake Superior.

Copper per se is about the only connection between Calumet’s economic past and Calumet Electronics. A more important link for the company is Michigan Technological University in nearby Houghton, Michigan, which has provided a steady supply of new engineering graduates who want to find employment that allows them to stay in an unusually remote – and unusually beautiful – part of the country.

The company still promotes its wide-open spaces for development purposes, and Calumet Electronics also is revitalizing parts of the old mining town as it continues to expand. “We are fortunate that we have room to expand in the region and there is existing infrastructure from the mining days that we can take advantage of.” Calumet is putting a 35,000-square-foot addition on the facility to help accommodate the growth.