Automakers look to become arsenal of health and build ventilators

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Detroit's automakers answered the call to become the arsenal of democracy during World War II, making bombers, tanks and trucks. Now, they are working to answer an urgent call to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, as well as Tesla Inc. and other automakers are exploring the possibility of producing ventilators at their plants after speaking with governments in Europe and the United States. Experts predict that if diagnoses of the respiratory illness surge, hospitals could face a shortage of the medical devices that help people to breathe in severe cases.

Detroit automakers say they are looking at producing ventilators to aid the coronavirus pandemic. But health-care expert say the medical devices are highly sophisticated, and it can take years to get FDA approval.

"We do right now need ventilators and personal protective equipment for our health-care workers if we're going to effectively manage this pandemic," said Ruthanne Sudderth, senior vice president of public affairs and advocacy for the Michigan Health & Hospital Association. "Michigan has a strong and rich manufacturing history. The MHA is supportive of any and all partners willing to provide any medical supplies and equipment."

Tesla CEO Elon Musk floated the idea this week in a tweet. The Silicon Valley automaker has a history with makeshift assembly lines — in 2018, it built Model 3 sedans underneath a tent the size of two football fields to boost production levels.

"We will make ventilators if there is a shortage," Tesla CEO Elon Musk wrote, later adding: "Tesla makes cars with sophisticated hvac systems. SpaceX makes spacecraft with life support systems. Ventilators are not difficult, but cannot be produced instantly."

Not so fast, some medical and health-care experts say. Although offers of assistance in addressing the outbreak are welcome, ventilators are "highly sophisticated pieces of machinery" with hardware and software, said Tim Myers, chief business officer of the American Association for Respiratory Care. And getting them approved by Food and Drug Administration regulators often takes years.

"I don't doubt a place like GM could come up with something," Myers said. "But the average time a ventilator takes to get approval is five to seven years. They take over breathing for a patient. It makes it hard to think somebody is going to start producing a ventilator in the next two to three months."

For now, discussions are in "very, very early stages," Ford spokeswoman Rachel McCleery said in an email Thursday after the Dearborn automaker confirmed it has met with U.S. and U.K. officials on the idea. GM CEO Mary Barra also raised the possibility of it during a meeting with the Trump administration Wednesday.

Fiat Chrysler, meanwhile, with Ferrari and parts-maker Marelli have offered to help Italy's largest ventilator manufacturer, said Enrico Tozzi, export department supervisor of Saire Engineering. COVID-19 deaths in Italy on Thursday surpassed China's, the epicenter of the illness. The Italian government has requested more of the devices from Saire.

"The situation is a lot of manufacturers are offering their help in the manufacturing of these important devices in this emergency, including the companies that you mentioned," Tozzi said.

Fiat Chrysler did not immediately comment on the possibility or if it also could assemble the devices here.

Companies, workers step up

It is unclear how the rollout of these ventilator ventures could occur, especially with the automakers in both North America and Europe shutting down their plants. After an outcry amid the rank-and-file over concerns of spreading the virus while on the job and pressure form unons, the Detroit Three agreed to close their manufacturing facilities in North America after Honda Motor Co. Ltd. did.

An outcry amid the rank-and-file over concerns of spreading the virus while on the job and pressure from the United Auto Workers brought the Detroit Three to agree to close their manufacturing facilities.

Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, told Fox News after meeting with Barra that workers might build ventilators "on a voluntary basis for civic and patriotic reasons."

The United Auto Workers did not have comment Thursday on the possibility. Some workers said they would be willing to assemble ventilators instead of vehicles — so long as they get paid.

"I'd do it," said Daniel Rider, a 47-year-old machinist at GM's Romulus Engine Plant. "There's a need for the ventilators. I'm glad GM could step up and do that. It could fill that need."

Another challenge could be finding the suppliers, who are mostly in China, for ventilator assembly, said Mitch Free, CEO of ZYCI CNC Machining, a George-based contract manufacturer. Around the world, countries are requesting more ventilators.

"China just coming off their lockdown and ramping their production back up," Free said. "They're probably at about 50% of their production capacity right now. If you put in an order, are they going to put that out in front of the line?"

U.S. automakers aren't alone in developing ways to help address the crisis. Vauxhall, the English division of FCA's merger partner French automaker Groupe PSA, has offered to build ventilators and 3-D print their parts. Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. is supporting existing producers in the U.K.

Chinese automaker Warren Buffett-backed BYD last week said it built production lines to make 5 million face masks and 300,000 bottles of disinfectants per day. A task force of 3,000 engineers brought the proposal from research and development to manufacturing in just two weeks.

GM's Chinese joint venture and Apple Inc. manufacturing contractor Foxconn Technology Group also have said they set up production lines to make masks and medical clothing.

And perfume manufacturers and breweries are making hand sanitizers, while jean factories are sewing together masks, as well.


Michigan health systems fear the coronavirus pandemic could overwhelm them. Officials have expressed concerns over personal protective equipment such as masks for health-care workers and the availability of beds.

The Michigan Health & Hospital Association is unaware of any ventilator shortages, though hospitals are in touch with their vendors and have been in contact about potentially using ventilators from the federal National Strategic Stockpile. That has about 13,000 devices and few have been requested, federal officials said this week; the Defense Department said it will contribute an additional 2,000.

But the U.S. could have as many as 960,000 coronavirus patients require ventilators at some point during the outbreak, according to the Society of Critical Care Medicine. And the nation only has about 200,000 of the machines. Roughly half are older models that may not be ideal for the worst-hit patients.

"This is exactly what I would expect from the U.S. industrial complex," Dr. Lewis Kaplan, president of the critical care society, said the automakers' proposition. "This is what they do. They have the ability to do something, they do it repeatedly, and they do it well. They can do it at scale.

"I would want them to begin figuring out how to do this right now. Hospitals should be preparing now and have the plans in place for when what could be a significant need of having them does happen."

GE Healthcare on Thursday said it was adding assembly lines and increasing shifts for 24/7 production of ventilators, citing "unprecedented demand" for medical devices. Some hospitals, however, are holding off for now on the machines that can cost $25,000 to $50,000 each.

"It's not something the hospitals have the finances to order as this is a short-term need for them," said Julie Letwat, health-care counsel at McGuireWoods LLP in Chicago. "The orders that are coming in are not coming from the United States. That could change."

But the American Hospital Association welcomes helps from automakers in making medical equipment and supplies, CEO Rick Pollack said in a statement: "The battle against COVID-19 requires an all-hands-on-deck approach."

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble