It may be a bit unorganized, even chaotic, but the Arsenal of Democracy is gearing up as the auto industry is scrambling to help health care workers fight a pandemic. Politics and confusion aside, carmakers and suppliers are forming partnerships and retooling idled plants to make masks, respirators, ventilators, and protective gear.
Despite the voluntary efforts underway, President Donald Trump on Friday signed an order requiring General Motors to produce ventilators to fight the coronavirus pandemic under the Defense Production Act, giving the government the authority to dictate how many ventilators GM must make. GM had already released a statement saying it has been working around the clock with partners for more than a week to get ventilator production underway as soon as possible.
Here are some of the auto industry’s efforts so far:
Ford Shipping Face Shields, Designing Respirators
Ford has a long history with aiding this country’s war efforts, so it is not surprising the automaker was quick to step up and help during this time of pandemic. Ford is 3D-printing face shields and helping get more respirators and ventilators into the hands of health care professionals.
The face shields are being printed to help meet the need for more personal protective gear for workers attending to patients infected by the coronavirus. The first 1,000 shields were sent to local Michigan hospitals and Ford’s goal was to complete 75,000 face shields by the end of this week (March 27) and further ramp up to a pace of 100,000 shields a week. They are being printed at the facilities of some Ford subsidiaries in Michigan. Ford also has gathered more than 200,000 masks from facilities around the world, which it is donating.
The other initiative is working with 3M and GE to design and manufacture air-purifying respirator masks and ventilators. Ford is helping 3M increase respirator capacity while setting its own engineers loose to use their creativity to come up with a respirator mask design built with existing and improvised Ford parts— portable battery packs, fans from the ventilated seats of an F-150 pickup truck, and 3D-printed parts—at a Ford facility.
The automaker said it could use its advanced manufacturing center in Redford, Michigan, which houses 3D printers to make up to 1,000 respirators per month initially, starting soon. Ford has also partnered with GE Healthcare on a ventilator design that could be built at a Ford or GE plant.
General Motors Preparing to Make Masks, Ventilators
The General is working with Ventec Life Systems to mass produce ventilators as well as surgical masks to help healthcare professionals. With Ventec’s help, GM will build critical care ventilators at the automaker’s plant in Kokomo, Indiana and GM will retool a former transmission plant in Warren, Michigan, to make surgical masks.
For ventilator production, the timeline is to start shipping FDA-approved ventilators as soon as next month. This extra production is in addition to Ventec ramping up existing ventilator production at its facility in Bothell, Washington.
“This unique partnership combines Ventec’s respiratory care expertise with GM’s manufacturing might to produce sophisticated and high-quality critical care ventilators,” said Chris Kiple, CEO of Ventec Life Systems, in a statement. “This pandemic is unprecedented and so is this response, with incredible support from GM and their suppliers. Healthcare professionals on the front lines deserve the best tools to treat patients and precision critical care ventilators like VOCSN are what is necessary to save lives.”
Employees have been working around the clock for more than a week to set up the tooling in Kokomo, where it was making electronic components until GM stopped all carmaking for the safety of employees. They are installing capacity to make more than 10,000 critical-care ventilators per month with the infrastructure and capability to scale further, which is likely given the global backorder of ventilators needed for patients fighting COVID-19. In addition to increasing capacity, GM brings the might of its supply chain and logistics to the effort; more than 700 individual parts are needed to build up to 200,000 ventilators.
GM is donating its resources at cost. About 1,000 GM employees in the U.S. are being immediately tapped for this work. They are being brought back from the Kokomo and Marion facilities. The United Auto Workers is in full support.
“We are happy to work with GM during this pandemic for the health and safety and good of our Nation as we collaborate towards the production of ventilators,” said UAW Vice President Terry Dittes Director of the UAW GM Department. “The UAW has a proud history of stepping up in times of national emergency. General Motors should be commended for stepping up at a crucial moment in our history. At the UAW we are all in to find ways to partner together to flatten this curve and save lives.”
GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra, in a statement, said the two companies have moved mountains to find solutions. “We are proud to stand with other American companies and our skilled employees to meet the needs of this global pandemic. This partnership has rallied the GM enterprise and our global supply base to support Ventec, and the teams are working together with incredible passion and commitment. I am proud of this partnership as we work together to address urgent and life-saving needs.”
The other swivel is retooling GM’s plant in Warren, Michigan, to temporarily manufacture surgical masks. Masks are less complicated to make making it possible to begin production next week. GM says within two weeks it will be capable of making up to 50,000 masks per day, with the potential to increase to 100,000 per day. The necessary machinery was to be delivered Friday. This employee-led initiative was created, planned and approved in about 48 hours.
FCA Making Facemasks in China
FCA will make masks in China and will donate them to emergency and health care workers in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. More than 1 million masks a month will arrive from China once production is ramped up in a couple weeks. Other countries will be helped in the future.
“Protecting our first responders and health care workers has never been more important,” said FCA CEO Mike Manley. “In addition to the support we are giving to increase the production of ventilators, we canvassed our contacts across the healthcare industry and it was very clear that there is an urgent and critical need for face masks. We’ve marshaled the resources of the FCA Group to focus immediately on installing production capacity for making masks and supporting those most in need on the front line of this pandemic.”
FCA determined that the fastest way to help first responders and health care workers was to convert an operational plant in China. Plants in North American are not currently running.
Distribution of the masks will be done in consultation with national, regional and city officials who can identify the areas of greatest need.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Ferrari previously said they were exploring making ventilators in Italy.
Toyota Wants to Do More
Toyota Motor North America said it will use some of its facilities to make face shields and is working with medical device suppliers to speed production of ventilators, respirators and other vital devices for hospitals.
The automaker will use 3D printing to make face shields with mass production to begin early next week. The first batch will go to hospitals in Texas, Indiana, Kentucky and Michigan.
“With our plants idled and our dealers focused on servicing customers, we are eager to contribute our expertise and know-how in order to help quickly bring to market the medical supplies and equipment needed to combat the COVID crisis,” said Ted Ogawa, incoming CEO of TMNA. “Our message to the medical equipment community is we are here to help, please utilize our expertise.”
Toyota says it is ready to make masks and is seeking partners for filters and the automaker is finalizing agreements with at least two companies to help increase their capacity of ventilators and respirators.
The automaker is offering engineering and manufacturing support to medical supply companies looking to increase capacity.
Tesla Plans to Donate
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has tweeted offers to help, and on Friday New York City Mayor Bill be Blasio said the electric car maker has agreed to donate hundreds of ventilators to hospital intensive care units in New York City and the state of New York.
Musk said Tesla is working to locate and deliver existing ventilators and he has purchased and donated more than 1,200 so far in California, as well as donating masks.
It is unclear whether Tesla will also make ventilators, although Musk has suggested that Medtronic is a potential partner. The Tesla plant in Fremont, California, shut down as of March 23 to comply with a shelter-in-place order.
Magna’s Sanitizing Device
Supplier Magna International says it is ready to ramp up production of a sanitization device developed to eliminate odor and bacteria in hockey gear that can be in hospitals to kill the coronavirus on personal protective equipment being used by staff. The Canadian supplier needs a testing partner to validate it first.