Automakers preparing to produce ventilators, respirators

Ford Motor Co. is throwing its design and production prowess behind two other manufacturers’ efforts to build more ventilators and respirators for health care workers and first responders.

Ford is joining relief efforts along with General Motors Co., which said Monday it’s exploring the feasibility of building ventilators for Ventec Life Systems Inc. of Washington State at one of its auto-parts plants in Kokomo, and Tesla Inc., which purchased more than 1,200 of the medical devices from China and is now distributing them.

Ford will work with 3M Co. to accelerate production of the respirators and have United Auto Workers members assemble more than 100,000 plastic face shields a week, according to a statement Tuesday. Ford also will help General Electric Co.’s health care unit boost output of ventilators hospitals desperately need for coronavirus patients.

“We’re just going as fast as we can,” Bill Ford, the automaker’s executive chairman and great-grandson of Henry Ford, said on NBC’s Today Show. “Nobody’s talked about the financial implications of this because this is a national emergency and we’ll sort all that out later.”

The collaboration, which Ford dubbed “Project Apollo” after the Apollo 13 spacecraft rescue mission, will help GE and 3M scale their existing efforts to provide critical products to hospitals being taxed by the coronavirus outbreak. With shortages of ventilators, respirators and other essential equipment hampering efforts to fight the deadly pandemic, U.S. President Donald Trump has challenged automakers to get involved.

Bill Ford said the company started the collaborations with 3M and GE before the White House asked American companies to help produce medical supplies.

“We’re doing it on our own,” he said, when asked if this was at the directive of the Trump administration. “Obviously, the White House put a call out for companies to help. But frankly, we were doing this, getting all this in motion, before that.”

General Motors  said Monday that it’s working around the clock with Ventec to build more of the critical medical devices.

GM spokesman Dan Flores said he can’t comment on how many more ventilators Ventec will make or how soon they will come. The GM statement also didn’t say when the Kokomo facility might be in operation.

Supply chain experts say it will be difficult to repurpose an auto plant to build a smaller, unrelated product such as ventilators. They say such a change could take months, but GM might be doing it faster.

In an email to GM senior management late Sunday, Shilpan Amin, the company’s vice president of purchasing, wrote that GM has commitments from Ventec’s parts companies to supply 93% of the ventilator’s parts to GM. The company is developing plans for the remaining 28 parts, he said in the email.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV also is aiming to produce 1 million masks a month at one of its plants in China to donate to first responders and health-care providers in the U.S.

Ford said it is coordinating with GM to avoid duplicating efforts as each company reaches out to suppliers to help boost medical device production. “We’re going into our parts bin to see what can be done,” Bill Ford said. “We’ve got great engineers and great manufacturing people and we’re putting them to work.”

Ford will help produce a simplified version of GE Healthcare’s existing ventilator, which is used to help patients suffering respiratory failure or having difficulty breathing. The respiratory disease known as covid-19 has spurred soaring demand for the equipment.

The first ventilator should be completed by early June, Ford CEO Jim Hackett told CBS This Morning. “Between now and June, it’s about ramping up,” he said.

GE already has doubled its output of ventilators in the months since the coronavirus outbreak began, and the company said it expects to double production again by the end of the second quarter, independent of the Ford partnership.GE also offered new information online on how to use its anesthesia devices for ventilation purposes, based on guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “With a global installed base of over 100,000 devices, this update provides immediate assistance in the global demand of ventilators,” the company said.

Ford and 3M also will use parts from both companies to quickly produce air-purifying respirators. The companies said they’ve sought off-the-shelf parts where possible, including fans from the Ford F-150 pickup’s cooled seats and 3M air filters.

“Working with 3M and GE, we have empowered our teams of engineers and designers to be scrappy and creative to quickly help scale up production of this vital equipment,” Ford’s Hackett said in the automaker’s statement.Ford is exploring ways to produce the respirators and ventilators in its factories, Bill Ford said.

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