Automakers' global 'Arsenal of Health' fights common COVID enemy

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

The Detroit automakers that quickly retooled America’s factories to fight World War II with bombers, tanks and bullets are now rapidly ramping up to help the nation’s health care soldiers take on COVID-19.

But unlike the global war that split the world between Axis and Allied powers, World War C has united every nation against a ruthless virus. German, Japanese, South Korean, British and Chinese automakers also are rushing to help tool up an "Arsenal of Health" to fight the enemy with ventilators, face masks and other medical devices just like their Detroit rivals.

Ford will produce ventilators at its Rawsonville Components Plant in Ypsilanti, shown here.

"The combination of manufacturing complexity at volume makes auto production unlike anything else in the world," said Kelley Blue Book auto analyst Karl Brauer. "Once you have mastered those logistics, anything else you make will be easier. Automakers can quickly pivot to making ventilators at volume that are much less complex than automobiles."

The American arsenal has expanded outside Detroit, too, with such upstarts as electric automakers Tesla Inc. and the North Carolina-based Haas Formula One team also lending their engineering skills to the good fight.

Nowhere is this joint spirit of innovation more apparent outside the United States than in Britain — which burned under the German Blitz in World War II and is suffering from rampant COVID-19 today.

Britain also is the epicenter of Formula One, the most advanced form of motor racing on the planet. Most F1 teams are based in Britain where they have access to state-of-the-art engineering talent and facilities — not unlike Michigan, where many international automakers have engineering facilities because of the deep talent pool here.

Seven F1 teams — including those funded by Germany’s Mercedes-Benz, America’s Haas, France’s Renault and Britain's Aston Martin — have created “Project Pitlane,” which is dedicated to three workstreams to help the COVID-19 crisis in Britain: reverse engineering existing medical devices, scaling the production of existing ventilators, and rapidly designing and manufacturing a new device for certification and subsequent production.

A female volunteer demonstrates the use of a CPAP device at UCL Hospital in London. Formula One team Mercedes has helped to develop a breathing aid that could keep coronavirus patients out of intensive care and ease some pressure on Britain's strained health service. (UCLH via AP)

Just as General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. offer a unique ability to scale ventilator production with expansive facilities and supply chains, Project Pitlane is structured around F1 racing's unique ability to respond instantly to technical demands — a crucial trait in keeping up in a sport that demands cutting-edge, space-age materials and construction.

Project Pitlane is pooling the team’s advanced F1 resources with a focus on rapid design, prototype manufacture and skilled assembly.

F1’s most famous company, Turin, Italy-based Ferrari SpA, has shut down due to the crisis. Still, the prancing horse is working with Siare, Italy's biggest hospital ventilator supplier to use its idled Maranello factory to ramp up production as Italy faces one of WWC's toughest battles against the virus.

In addition, the Agnelli family — controlling shareholders of Ferrari as well as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV — has made an $11 million donation to the Italian Civil Protection Department to help it respond to local health needs.

Another Italian exotic maker, Lamborghini, also is speeding a transition to medical device maker to help Italy’s overwhelmed national health system. The Bologna-based supercar maker has converted production plant departments to produce surgical masks and protective plexiglass shields for the local Sant’Orsola-Malpighi Hospital.

“During this emergency, we feel the need to make a concrete contribution,” Lamborghini CEO Stefano Domenicali said. “We will win this battle together by working in union, supporting those who are at the forefront of fighting this pandemic every day.”

In particular, Lambo is using its skilled saddlery workforce — the men and women who sculpt supercars' customized interiors — to produce 1,000 masks daily. By using the 3D printers automakers have helped pioneer to build prototype body parts, medical shields are being produced at a rate of 200 units a day out of Bologna’s carbon fiber production plant and the R&D department.

In this photo released on Tuesday, March 31, 2020, Automobili Lamborghini workers produce sanitary masks, at the Sant'Agata Bolognese factory, Italy. Lamborghini converted part of its St. Agata Bolognese plant to produce medical face masks to be delivered to the Bologna's St. Orsola hospital. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (Automobili Lamborghini via AP)

In hard-hit Spain, national automaker SEAT, a unit of Volkswagen AG, is adapting windscreen wiper motors to make automated ventilators for use in hospitals. The unique application was developed by 150 company employees over 13 prototypes before settling on a final production design.

The operation has transformed SEAT’s Martorell assembly line from making Leon compact cars to medical devices, yet another example of the industry’s vast technical capability to innovate under the pressure of a global pandemic.

“If ever there was proof of the need to have a healthy industrial base in each country, this is your proof,” said analyst Brauer. “That’s why it was key to rescue the manufacturing footprint of the U.S. back in 2009 — automakers continue to prove their value today.”

Once an automotive manufacturing giant, Britain has lost most of that base today. In addition to its Formula One efforts, Germany’s Mercedes-AMG High Performance powertrain division has partnered with University College London engineers to develop so-called Continuous Positive Airway Pressure devices — CPAP for short — in less than a week to help suffering British patients.

Typically used to help patients with sleep apnea, CPAPs help patients with respiratory infections breathe with oxygen to help them stay out of intensive care where they may ultimately need scarce ventilators. Like ventilators, CPAP devices are in low supply.

German and Japanese companies have also mobilized for the fight — in North America. 

Volkswagen announced April 3 that it has partnered with supplier Faurecia, a fabrics and materials supplier to the brand, to produce 250,000 masks and 50,000 gowns a week in a Mexican plant for global distribution to medical personnel in the U.S., Spain and France. The first order of 70,000 masks and 5,000 gowns is destined for New York’s Javits Convention Center, recently re-purposed as a COVID-19 field hospital. 

With operations across North America, Honda has re-purposed 3D printers to manufacture visors for protective face shields. Toyota, with U.S. headquarters in Plano, Texas, also has a huge production footprint here and has revved up production of 3D-printed face shields this week for distribution to hospitals in Houston, Dallas, Indiana, Kentucky and Michigan.

Also in the U.S., Tesla this week announced production of ventilators. Though renowned for its Fremont, California, plant producing the hot-selling Model 3 sedan, Tesla is partnering with ventilator-maker Medtronic to make the breathing devices at its solar panel facility in Buffalo. The facility will reopen after New York’s shutdown of non-essential businesses.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.