U.S. automakers are swinging into action for ventilators in coronavirus fight

Much remains unclear about how the effort is being organized

A VOCSN multi-function ventilator, partially disassembled to show its inner electronics, is pictured at Ventec Life Systems in Bothell, Washington. GM will lend a hand, and its suppliers are already being called on to manufacture parts.  / Reuters

An update was published Monday afternoon, with GM's announcement that it was entering into a partnership with Ventec called "Project V," with the goal of building 200,000 ventilators at a GM facility in Kokomo, Indiana. Here's a link to that story. Monday morning's story on the topic appears below.


The U.S. auto industry is scrambling to lend a hand in the fight against the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic following an announcement late Friday by General Motors that it was helping a Washington state medical technology company increase production of badly needed ventilators.

Separately, Elon Musk has chimed in about ventilators on Twitter, saying that “We expect to have over ~1,200 to distribute this week. Getting them delivered, installed and operating is the harder part.” It’s not clear what ventilators he’s referring to or where they are coming from; Autoblog sought comment from Tesla.

GM in a statement Friday said it was partnering with Ventec Life Systems, a Bothell, Washington-based maker of a multi-function hospital-grade ventilator. GM said it would lend support via its manufacturing know-how, logistics and purchasing power, but it has declined to offer further details. Crain’s Detroit Business reported Sunday that several GM suppliers, including Magna International and BorgWarner, are being pressed into duty to see if they can manufacture ventilator parts. One of them, Meridian Lightweight Technologies Holdings, is helping the automaker procure six different magnesium compressor components for an estimated 200,000 ventilators, the publication reports.

Both GM and Ford have confirmed having discussions last week with White House officials about helping boost production of ventilators. The Society of Critical Care Medicine projects that the U.S. has only around 200,000 of the machines available but may need 960,000 as the pandemic worsens. Governments in Italy and the U.K. have also approached automakers about lending their expertise to increase production of ventilators and other needed medical equipment. 

President Trump has yet to wield the Defense Production Act, a law passed by Congress during the Korean War to force private industries to manufacture goods needed during times of public crisis, citing resistance from private businesses. GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler announced last week plans to temporarily shut down their U.S. assembly plants to safeguard workers against the coronavirus spread. He also tweeted that “Ford, General Motors and Tesla are being given the go ahead to make ventilators and other metal products, FAST!” though it wasn’t immediately clear what he was referring to as the automakers' efforts seemed to be well under way days before his tweet.

While the Detroit automakers famously quit producing cars and re-tooled their plants to build war munitions during World War II, earning Detroit the label “Arsenal of Democracy,” experts say similarly converting auto plants over to build ventilators would not be simple. There are issues of intellectual property, FDA certification, designing new tooling to make parts and the need to create cleanrooms for production and sourcing non-allergenic materials.

Willy Shih, a professor at Harvard Business School who focuses on manufacturing and supply chains, estimates it could take an automaker up to a year to overcome those hurdles and prepare a dedicated assembly line to build complete ventilator units.

“It just seems to be easier to let me go pour money into Medtronic or somebody who makes those machines now and just increase their capacity,” he said. “This is not like sticking a tube from your HVAC system into somebody’s lungs.”

How exactly the effort is being coordinated among automakers and suppliers, and to what degree, isn’t yet clear. GM’s statement on Friday was done in concert with, a consortium of private industry interests rallying to fight the coronavirus. Musk over the weekend tweeted that he had discussed engineering “state-of-the-art” ventilators with Medtronic, which elicited a statement in response from the manufacturer itself. Tesla also sent out tens of thousand of N95 respirator masks to states over the weekend.

Ford, meanwhile, issued a statement at the same time it was announcing further production shutdowns in its International Markets Group in India, South Africa, Thailand and Vietnam, and adding to further plant shutdowns in the U.K.

“As America’s largest producer of vehicles and top employer of autoworkers, Ford stands ready to help the administration in any way we can, including the possibility of producing ventilators and other equipment,” the automaker says. “We have had preliminary discussions with the U.S. and U.K. governments and looking into the feasibility. It’s vital that we all pull together to help the country weather this crisis and come out the other side stronger than ever.”

It may not be long before we know more specifically what Ford means by that. Developments are happening quickly on the ventilator front in the war on the coronavirus. Expect further updates soon.

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