Opinion: More American-made ventilators, fewer deaths

Mark J. Perry

Hard as it may seem to believe, every ventilator has become like gold.

Just a few weeks into the coronavirus pandemic, the nightmare of ventilator shortages is all too real. Hospitals are engaged in a life-or-death scramble to get more of the machines, which are essential to saving the lives of the most critically-ill patients. Every ventilator producer is swamped with back orders, and there has been an appeal to manufacturers — even those with no experience in making medical equipment — to switch their assembly lines over to build the equipment. The call to produce ventilators harkens back to wartime.

Hospitals are engaged in a life-or-death scramble to get more of the machines, which are essential to saving the lives of the most critically-ill patients, Mark Perry writes.

The challenges are daunting. Ventilators are incredibly complex machines composed of electronics, sensors, valves and software. It's still not clear whether builders of automobiles like GM, Ford and Tesla will be able to produce ventilators easily. The design should be far simpler than the auto and jet engines they build. But manufacturing a ventilator requires specialized parts and many hard-to-procure minerals and metals.

The good news is that trends in manufacturing such as advanced robotics, data analytics and 3D printing have made it easier for companies to switch gears and make complex products. But in one critical aspect, the system has become increasingly vulnerable: in the supply of minerals and metals needed for the manufacture of components. It's unclear how many different materials are needed to make ventilators, but it could be as many as in a modern computer, which is dozens.

The lack of ventilator production capacity is symptomatic of the changes in our nation's production base. We rely on China to produce our ventilators, masks, gowns, gloves and other medical equipment. As global supply chains have collapsed during the coronavirus crisis, we are finding ourselves in an incredibly tough spot. The lack of access to overseas supplies is troubling. In many cases, no supplies mean no work.

To be sure, price and cost determine where U.S. companies shop, and because foreign markets often have lower-cost items, they become a go-to source. But with the global pandemic, longtime calculations might have to be rethought. Paying a bit more for domestic supplies whose delivery is less at risk in future crises might be a smarter decision.

So that not everything comes from abroad, we need to re-establish on American shores essential pieces of our industrial base. That should include critical minerals production which we need for our most advanced defense, telecommunications, health care, and energy technologies. The Chinese dominate minerals production unlike any other sector — many of the materials used for ventilators come from China — and it would be prudent to no let that continue, especially since we have vast mineral resources here at home. A good start would be to improve and modernize our cumbersome mine permitting process so that companies don't have to wait 10 years or more for government approval to open a new mine.

What's important is that just as the United States has insisted on building sensitive weapons like its own stealth fighters and its own cyberweapons, we should not want to be beholden to a foreign power for access to minerals that are needed as part of our nation's supply chain.

The best way to protect our country from a shortage of critically important materials is by adopting a strategy aimed at reopening domestic mines and taking advantage of the vast mineral resources that remain on our public lands. A lack of action will hurt the United States because it will cost valuable time in the effort to save lives in a pandemic.

Mark J. Perry is a professor of economics at the Flint campus of the University of Michigan and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.