GM, Big Three Leverage Supplier to Bolster Health Production

Much talk has been made over the past week of turning the auto industry’s manufacturing might into a so-called Arsenal of Health. In the U.S. and Canada, federal governments have turned to automakers for production of much-needed ventilators to save lives of coronavirus patients. Meanwhile, breweries and distilleries have swapped to hand sanitizer production.

Turning on a dime to crank out ventilators and face masks isn’t an overnight proposition, but an emergency effort to expand the availability of life-saving supplies would go a long way to save lives. The Detroit Three are already on it. Tesla, too.

All four automakers have idled production — or are in the process of doing it — at domestic plants, with those facilities tapped for a deep cleansing and eventual reappraisal. The shutdown could go longer than initially planned.

Rather than roll out the Defense Production Act, President Trump instead appealed to companies to turn their focus to the production of much-needed health supplies and ventilation apparatus. In General Motors’ case, the appeal wasn’t needed. On March 20th, the automaker announced a partnership with Ventec Life Systems.

“Ventec will leverage GM’s logistics, purchasing and manufacturing expertise to build more of their critically important ventilators,” the supplier said in a statement.

According to Reuters, Fiat Chrysler CEO Mike Manley reportedly told employees that a Chinese plant will be tapped to make face masks for healthcare workers. UILM union representative Gianluca Ficco told the outlet that Manley envisions production of one million masks a month. Already, Fiat, as well as Ferrari, were in talks with Italian ventilator manufacturer Siare Engineering to help double that company’s output.

Ford claims it is in talks with British and American health suppliers and could involve itself with ventilator production. The company “stands ready to help the administration in any way we can, including the possibility of producing ventilators and other equipment,” a Ford spokesperson told dbusiness. Both the Blue Oval and GM are reported to have spoken with White House officials about building such supplies.

As reported by USA Today, on Sunday the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it had cleared the way for quicker approval of medical devices.

On Saturday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who reluctantly agreed to shut down his Fremont California plant after wrangling with local-through-federal officials, tweeted that his company was in discussion with supplier Medtronic.

Late yesterday, Musk tweeted that a shipment of N95 face masks donated to badly-hit states was being held up at LAX, prompting a response from the airport. It seems the shipment eventually cleared. As well, Musk, who infamously downplayed the coronavirus pandemic in a tweet a few weeks ago, said Tesla and SpaceX would put 1,2000 ventilators into production this week.

Time will tell whether companies normally tasked with building cars can get in gear and boost ventilator output in sufficient numbers to prevent a situation like that seen in Italy, where a shortage of ICU beds and ventilators forced doctors to choose which critical patients received life-saving care. The country’s COVID-19 death toll has since surpassed China’s.

North of the border, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a similar appeal to his country’s manufacturing base. There, auto parts manufacturers are mulling the feasibility of swapping to ventilator production, with obtaining the necessary engineering specs being part of that process. There’s also the thorny issue of intellectual property laws.

“If we can get the drawings and the technical guidance, we’re ready and willing to help,” Rob Wildeboer, executive chairman of Martinrea International, told the Financial Post.

a version of this article first appeared on TTAC

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