MADISON, Wis. — For years, the GE Healthcare manufacturing plant in Madison has made anesthesia machines and ventilators that are part of the basic, life-saving tools that equip operating rooms worldwide.

Now, the factory, built in 1970, has begun turning out machines to help the very youngest patients survive.

Since Jan. 2, the plant has been assembling a baby warming machine, called the Panda, and starting in July, it will assemble an infant incubator, called the Giraffe.

The production was moved from a GE factory in Laurel, Maryland, to the Madison plant.

Plant manager Mark Goyette said one big reason the site was chosen was that it did not require building an addition onto the 212,000-square-foot factory.

"It was us being able to demonstrate our dedication to continuing improvement and competition in the marketplace. And we could do it without expansion," Goyette told the Wisconsin State Journal .

He said lean manufacturing procedures, such as inventory management and rethinking organization on the plant floor, freed up enough space to accommodate the extra work.

As a result, the Madison plant is adding staff. Currently at 550 employees, GE Healthcare plans to hire 25 production workers and several engineers in the near future, Goyette said.

"That number will continue to grow," he said.

That's good news for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the union representing about 235 production and maintenance workers at the plant, up from fewer than 200 a couple of years ago, said business representative Joe Terlisher, of IAM District 10. He said the employees are under a four-year contract that expires in June 2020.

The Panda warmer is a wheeled cart with a series of gauges embedded along a column at the front, topped by a heat lamp. When a newborn is laid on the cart's small table, nurses can record its weight, measure heart rate and oxygen levels, and even resuscitate the baby, if necessary.

Heat reflects off a disk, plated with real gold, to keep the infant warm.

Managing the baby's temperature "is everything," said Jessica Buzek, global marketing director for maternal-infant care. "It all starts with temperature."

Premature infants are placed in a Giraffe incubator, a nearly enclosed bed with controlled temperature, oxygen and humidity, and side portholes to let parents provide a gentle touch. The top can be lifted, one side guard can flip open and the pad can tilt to one side or another so the medical team can access the infant. Light and sound can be dimmed, Buzek said.

"You don't want to disturb the babies," she said. "All of that is key in neural development."

Buzek said infants as early as 22 weeks of gestation can now survive with technology that is available.

GE Healthcare employee Todd DuBenske knows that firsthand. His wife, Lindsey, gave birth to the couple's third daughter when the baby was at 25 weeks of development. Nora was 11 inches long and weighed 1 pound, 3 ounces when she was placed in the Giraffe.

"It was her home for the next three months," DuBenske said. Surgeons had to repair a hole in her heart, and other health problems cropped up, as well. Living in the neonatal intensive care unit at Meriter Hospital brought "lots of roller coasters every day," he said.

Nora turned 2 years old in January and is healthy and meeting normal development milestones, DuBenske said. Seeing the Giraffe built in Madison is "kind of special to me," he said.

At GE Healthcare's Madison plant, employees in adjacent work stations piece together the Panda's overhead radiant heat unit, assemble the plexiglass side-railed infant bed, mount the column of sensors and test the finished product. Workers are cross-trained along the production line, Goyette said.

"We make a unit about every 35 minutes," he said. "That time is going to grow shorter and shorter" as production ramps up.

Just over a week ago, the first Panda warmer machines manufactured in Madison were delivered to UW Hospital. All three Madison hospitals are equipped with both Pandas and Giraffes, Buzek said.

Production of the Giraffe units — featured in GE Healthcare's commercials during the Olympics — is scheduled to begin in Madison around July 4.

Meanwhile, the Madison plant continues assembling anesthesia machines and ventilators, shipped to 180 countries.

The Aisys CS2 model can take "300 data points every patient breath," said Brandon Henak, global marketing director of anesthesia and respiratory care. "Our vision is to take the data and connect them and use them to improve care," he said.

In December, the Madison plant also started producing a flow sensor for the anesthesia machines through a new robotics system.

In all, the additional product lines are pumping up production volume by 25 percent, Goyette said. "It has created a lot of energy and excitement in the factory," he said.

Production of anesthesia machines in Madison dates back to 1904. In the 1960s through the 1990s, the company was Ohio Medical Products, then Ohmeda, followed by Datex-Ohmeda, as ownership changed. GE Healthcare bought the business in 2003, and employment grew to 750 by 2006, but later contracted as the company made changes over the years.

An AP Member Exchange shared by the Wisconsin State Journal.