Coronavirus: Could automakers retool to make ventilators? It’s not that simple.
Whether it’s part patriotism, part profit incentive, or part a desire to keep idled auto workers busy, the world’s automakers are saying they could begin making medical ventilators instead of cars. According to CNN, Ford released a statement Wednesday night saying, “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. We have had preliminary discussions with the US government and are looking into the feasibility.”
Not to be outdone, General Motors is also eager to help. Spokesperson Jeannine Ginivan tells CNN that GM CEO Mary Barra had been in touch with the White House regarding the possibility. “GM is working to help find solutions for the nation during this difficult time and has offered to help,” she said. Between them, GM and Ford have 83 factories that are temporarily shut down due to the coronavirus crisis. In the United Kingdom, aircraft engine maker Rolls Royce and vacuum maker Dyson have been approached about making ventilators to address shortages there, CNN says.
Kristin Dziczek, an industry analyst with the Center for Automotive Research in Michigan, says automakers can command legions of supplier companies that make plastic and metal parts and electronic components. They also offer invaluable expertise in working through complex manufacturing and logistical problems. “There’s a whole range of needs we’re going to have that the manufacturing might of the automakers could be brought to bear on,” she adds.
After a day spent tweeting about the coronavirus and ventilator manufacturing, Elon Musk on Wednesday indicated that Tesla and SpaceX have the know-how to manufacture ventilators, since both produce medical quality air systems for automobiles and spacecraft. That got an immediate response from New York City mayor.
@elonmusk New York City is buying!
Our country is facing a drastic shortage and we need ventilators ASAP — we will need thousands in this city over the next few weeks. We’re getting them as fast as we can but we could use your help!
We’re reaching out to you directly.
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) March 19, 2020
The auto industry relies on a global network of suppliers. In Canada, the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association is enlisting tool and die companies and parts suppliers to adapt their manufacturing plants on both sides of the border to produce medical supplies, according to Axios.
“Their response has been overwhelming … Just get us the specs,” APMA President Flavio Volpe tells the CBC. He thinks the shift to medical supplies would be easy enough to do and the conversion back to making auto parts could take place quickly after the emergency passes. Chris Kiple, CEO of Ventec Life Systems, a ventilator manufacturer, tells NPR his company can ramp up production fivefold if needed.
According to Very Well Health, a ventilator, also known as a respirator or breathing machine, is a medical device that provides a patient with oxygen when they are unable to breathe on their own. The ventilator gently pushes air into the lungs and allows it to come back out like the lungs would typically do when they are able. This happens when patients are too ill to breathe for themselves. This may happen due to trauma, infection, or another problem.
Tesla fans are familiar with Sandy Munro, who makes his living tearing perfectly fine automobiles apart to see how they are put together. It turns out, Munro also deconstructs other manufactured products — like medical ventilators. He tells Axios that gearing up to make them is no simple task.
They need to be made in sterile rooms where the level of cleanliness is far higher than in a traditional automotive paint booth, Munro says. Also, any new manufacturing facility needs to be validated by the Food & Drug Administration — a process that can take up to 180 days according to the Huffington Post. Training workers to make ventilators can take up to 9 months, Munro says. “Medical devices are intricate machines on which people’s lives depend. Every step of the production process has to be precise. This isn’t just a box with an air hose on it.”
There are other challenges. The ventilators use highly specialized single-use breathing tubes and masks made from medical grade materials. Most of those components are manufactured overseas in Costa Rica, Japan, South Korea — and oh yes, China. The worlds of ocean cargo and air freight are in turmoil at the moment and may remain disrupted for months.
Of course, the US administration could wave its magic wand and override any and all regulations slowing down the production of ventilators under any number of emergency powers at its disposal. The final chapter of this story has yet to be written, except to say that within 6 months to a year there will be a glut of used ventilators for sale. Perhaps they will wind up in countries that have never been able to afford them previously.
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