Howes: Detroit's 'arsenal of health' surges to battle coronavirus

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

The Michigan-based Arsenal of Health is shifting into high gear.

Nearly 80 years after Detroit's automakers and the United Auto Workers retooled their plants to make planes, tanks and trucks to help the allies win World War II, their successors are refitting components plants and ramping to assemble nearly 20,000 ventilators a month needed to treat patients battling COVID-19.

Ventec Life Systems Vice President Engineering Joe Cipollone explains its VOCSN critical care ventilator Friday to GM employees who will be helping to produce the ventilators at GM's Kokomo, Indiana, manufacturing facility.

General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. are each leveraging their engineering, manufacturing and logistics expertise to partner with medical device makers to dramatically increase production ventilators. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV is producing masks at a plant in China. Southfield-based Lear Corp. is manufacturing 25,000 protective facemasks per day in a North Carolina plant.

And they geared up to do it themselves, long before President Donald Trump bowed last Friday to mounting pressure from mayors and governors demanding that he use the Korean War-era Defense Production Act to compel manufacturers to build badly needed medical supplies.

Not that you'd know that judging by the latest spin from the White House. A day after the president excoriated GM and its CEO, Mary Barra, for "wasting time" in supply contract talks it wasn't even having (its partner, Ventec Life Systems was), and after issuing GM the first order under the DPA, the president was back to making nice about the Detroit automaker.

The whole episode was outrageous, misguided and unsupported by the facts — the president's Twitter rant about "Mary B.," his demand that GM build ventilators in a northeast Ohio plant it no longer owns, his potshots from the White House press room, a DPA order commanding GM do what it's already doing at its Kokomo Operations facility in Indiana.

Barra's advice to the troops, according to a source familiar with the situation: We're doing the right thing. Stay focused. Keep going. And the truth will out, proving once again that what you do matters a whole lot more than what you say.

GM and Ventec Life Systems are partnering to convert GM's Kokomo manufacturing facility for the production of Ventec ventilators.

Then Monday, Ford and GE Healthcare detailed plans to assemble 50,000 ventilators within 100 days of launching production April 20 in the Blue Oval's Rawsonville Components Plant in Ypsilanti, thanks to 500 UAW volunteers who would work three shifts and be paid their base union scale.

“The Ford/GE Healthcare team is moving in ‘Trump time’ to speed urgently needed ventilators to the front lines of the Trump Administration’s full-scale war against the coronavirus," the president's DPA coordinator, Peter Navarro, said in a statement. "We salute that effort and look forward to the first ventilators rolling off the Michigan

assembly line in record time — and we’ll be there to salute that milestone.”

Oh, I'm sure they'll be there for the victory lap. Except for this little inconvenient fact: Automotive Detroit's medical-equipment surge is a testament to the leadership of folks like GM's Barra and Ford's Jim Hackett and Lear's Ray Scott, and all the engineering and manufacturing folks who've done in a week and half what would normally take a year and a half.

Guys like GM's Larry Foltran, a layout engineer for GM's "Project V" partnership with Ventec. In a post on Facebook time stamped 1:12 a.m. Saturday, he wrote about leaving GM's Tech Center in Warren late at night and hearing about "how our President feels the company isn't working fast enough ..."

Foltran talks about working 14 to 18 hours a day with the folks from Ventec, "working out every detail to produce a device completely unfamiliar to us. What we have accomplished in five days is incredible. The level of motivation and drive I've encountered is beyond anything I've ever encountered. #IWORKFORGM."

The auto surge to fight COVID-19 also is enabled by the 30 Ford employees who piled into vehicles and drove 14 hours to Aberdeen, South Dakota, where they advised their counterparts at 3M Co. how to up production of purified air respirators developed with seat-cooling fans for F-150 pickups and batteries from cordless drills.

Welcome to American innovation under pressure, an unleashing of speed, collaboration and technical expertise leveraging the scale of large manufacturers. They're obliterating timelines and breaking down barriers to rush to production badly needed ventilators, masks, face shields and other personal protective equipment.

This is American business at its best, Detroit's automotive ecosystem at its finest. And it arrived here of its own accord, not because some White House czar purporting to command the manufacturing economy directed them there. To the extent the administration is leading at all in mobilizing American industry, it appears to be leading from behind.

None of this should be surprising given a) the reactive impulse of the present administration and b) the character of the men and women leading Detroit's automotive powerhouse. People who lived through the ignominy of bailouts, bankruptcy and restructuring; people who grasp the technical and manufacturing might they still wield, capability that has a bias for outperforming when crisis arrives.

They're people who're willing to act.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs most Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN. Or listen to his Saturday podcasts at or on Michigan Radio, 91.7 FM.