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GM explores building ventilators in Indiana plant for Ventec

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

General Motors Co. is exploring the feasibility of building ventilators at its facility in Kokomo, Indiana, to combat shortages of ventilators amid the COVID-19 outbreak, the Detroit automaker said Monday.

The announcement comes after GM on Friday said it was partnering with Washington-based Ventec Life Systems, a small ventilator manufacturer, and StopTheSpread.org, an organization looking to bring together businesses to prevent the virus from spreading. At the time, GM said it would leverage its engineering, logistics and manufacturing expertise to help Ventec boost production.

This Bosch cell at Twin City Die Castings Co.'s facility in Minneapolis is the second step of creating machine parts to accomplish tight tolerance.

"Ventec Life Systems and General Motors have been working around the clock to implement plans to build more critical care ventilators," the automaker said in a statement. "With GM’s support, Ventec is now planning exponentially higher ventilator production as fast as possible."

GM's Kokomo Operations makes electronic components and assemblies. The 2.6 million-square-foot facility employs 274 hourly and 118 salaried employees, though the automaker last week agreed to close progressively manufacturing facilities until March 30 following pressure from labor unions to do so.

GM has tapped its suppliers to help in its efforts, Crain's Detroit first reported. That includes Minneapolis-based Twin City Die Castings Co., which makes housing for electronics in control and four-wheel drive systems and airbags.

The Colosio machine at Twin City Die Castings Co.'s Minneapolis facility performs the die cast process, the first step to machine parts.

The manufacturer, whose medical manufacturing business makes up 20% of its revenues, began talking with Ventec about nine months ago, CEO Todd Olson said. At that time, Ventec was looking to make 150 ventilators per month. Now, the die casting company is being told it could be up to 200,000 ventilators per yea.

"This is ideal for us," Olson said. "We know the requirements of the medical customers as we've done ventilators and oxygen compressors, and we know how to scale up for an automotive company-style demand."

Twin City is involved in approximately 20 different parts, including housings and compressor parts for generating oxygen. Engineer teams worked around the clock over the weekend to figure out to help with the efforts. Twin City's competitors also have said they want to help, Olson said. He hopes to be in production in 10% of the time a normal project would take.

Olson is confident his company has the casting capacity to support the demand and expects to know if by the end of the week when the auto plants have shut down whether the company can deliver more from its machining operations.

"We’ll be having initial parts of the tooling, then we’ll see how much longer beyond that," Olson said. "It's moving at a lightning-fast pace. I've never seen anything like this."

Other automakers also are helping to respond to the virus. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV plans to convert a plant in China to make face masks for U.S. first responders and health-care workers in addition to supporting Italian ventilator manufacturer Siare Engineering International Group increase its output.

Meanwhile, Ford Motor Co. also has said it is researching the feasibility of making ventilators and other medical equipment after discussion with the U.S. and U.K. government. Tesla Inc. also had discussions with ventilator manufacturer Medtronic plc.

bnoble@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble