Ferrari, Fiat, McLaren, Nissan join coronavirus ventilator efforts

McLaren, Nissan and Airbus are also stepping up

Siare Engineering, Italy's largest manufacturer of hospital ventilators, has turned to Italian automakers Ferrari and Fiat to investigate the possibility that the automakers might help produce more of the live-saving machines that are urgently needed to fight the coronavirus pandemic. The Italian government has asked Siare to increase ventilator production from 160 per month to 500 as the country's death toll has surpassed 3,400 and is climbing rapidly. 

"We're talking to Fiat Chrysler, Ferrari and Marelli to try to understand if they can lend us a hand in this process for the electronics part," Gianluca Preziosa, Siare's chief executive said in an interview quoted by Reuters, adding that the car companies' expertise in electronics and pneumatics could make them ideal partners. Preziosa said that another advantage of partnering with carmakers was their purchasing power, making them more likely to obtain parts that his small firm was struggling to secure amid coronavirus-related disruption to global supply chains.

A spokesman for Exor, parent of both FCA and Ferrari, said that meetings with Siare had taken place on Thursday to study the feasibility of the idea and that a decision was expected in the coming hours. Two main options were being considered: either to help Siare engineer a capacity increase at its plant, with the support of technicians provided by FCA and Ferrari, or outsource production of ventilator parts to the carmakers' facilities.

A source familiar with the matter told Reuters that Ferrari would be ready to start manufacturing ventilator parts in its famous Maranello headquarters, which lies close to the Siare factory, but that the luxury carmaker had yet to make a final decision.

Automakers worldwide are being drafted for ventilator duty. In addition to Ford and GM making plans with the U.S. government; British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reaching out to Ford, Honda and Rolls-Royce; and an Elon Musk tweeted offer to build ventilators "if there is a shortage," other automakers and aerospace companies are joining in. In Europe, three groups have formed.

Meggitt, which builds components including oxygen systems for civil aerospace and military fighter programs, is leading one consortium alongside engineers GKN, Thales and Renishaw.

The other two teams are being led by carmakers McLaren, which is looking at how to design a simple version of a ventilator, and Nissan, which is working with others to support existing ventilator producers.

Ventilators, which move air in and out of the lungs, could be the difference between life and death for coronavirus patients suffering breathing difficulties.

But getting new production up to speed will not be easy, some in the manufacturing industry said.

“Precision milling and 3D printing techniques could help manufacture complex parts," said Rene-Christopher Wollmann, program and platform director at Automobili Pininfarina, which uses virtual design software to build electric hypercars.

"But this depends on how much know-how existing manufacturers (of ventilators) are prepared to share about the design of such a machine," he added. "Another bottleneck will be assembling such machines under conditions which are adequate for the medical industry."

European aerospace group Airbus is working across its processes to see if its 3D printing or production facilities can be of use.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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