Car Makers Revamp Production Lines to Build Ventilators

Author photo: Dick Slansky
ByDick Slansky
Industry Trends

Recently, union auto workers at a Ford manufacturing plant outside Detroit were scrambling to set up new production lines. But at this plant, which would normally be making hybrid car batteries, they were preparing to fabricate and assemble tens of thousands of ventilators, joining in the fight to combat the coronavirus pandemic currently ravishing the US.  

See How Old-School Manufacturers Learned To Make Ventilators — Virtually Overnight.

Both Ford and GM announced in late March that they would be building the medical machines after shutting down their automotive production lines and sending workers home to quarantine.  This represents a historic redeployment of factories, workers, and production ramp-up to manufacture completely different products, not seen since American car makers made the switch to the tanks, military vehicles, and aircraft to support the war production and mobilization effort of WWII.  

build ventilatorsHowever, the relatively late start of both companies means that most of their production will most likely not come on-line until sometime in May, possibly missing the peak load of cases expected by most US health experts in mid to late April.  But some of these same medical and infectious disease experts are saying that it will be critical to build up the US reserve of ventilators for what some are saying could be a second wave of the coronavirus in the Fall.

Ford said it has plans to produce around 1,500 ventilators by the end of April and is ramping up to 7,200 a week and promising 50,000 by July 4th.  Meanwhile, GM, which brought its team of project workers into training in early April will be able to produce 10,000 units per month by mid-May and could build up to 200,00 units overall.  The ventilator that Ford is building is simpler and could allow faster production than the more complex unit that GM is producing for intensive care units.  The Ford ventilators are designed to be used on patients who are being transported in ambulances or helicopters and doesn’t have some of the more advanced features that doctors, and intensive care ventilator experts reply in the ICU environment.

The overall effort is a test of American manufacturing prowess and expertise not seen in many decades. Employees and executives at Ford and GM have been working around the clock to respond to the urgent need precipitated by a national crisis not seen since national wartime production endeavors.

Ford is working with GE Healthcare and medical device manufacture Airon Corp., a small Florida-based ventilator company that normally produces two or three machines a day.  Ford will be retooling its Rawsonville Components plant in Ypsilanti, Mich. to manufacture thousands of ventilators.

Ford sent a manufacturing expert to Airon’s factory to learn how the ventilators were made. Airon shipped their model to Ford’s Detroit headquarters, where it was disassembled by a team of engineers the next day. Within a few days, and about a dozen phone calls between Airon and Ford to discuss how the machine works, how to build it, and how to get component parts, Ford was planning the initial production line.

Ford chose the Airon ventilator, because it met the medical requirements for treating COVID-19 patients, but was made of relatively few components, making it faster to manufacture. The Airon device will have between 250-300 components, while the more complex machine that GM is making has 419.

build ventilatorsGM’s ventilator efforts began a few days before Ford’s in mid-March. GM’s CEO, Mary Barra, was contacted by a non-profit whose mission was to combat the coronavirus, and asked GM if they could make ventilators. Barra assigned a team for the task, and contacted Ventec, a small Washington State-based ventilator manufacturer. The GM team flew to Seattle for a meeting at Ventec’s headquarters in Bothell, Wash. to discuss how they could scale production operations through GM’s manufacturing process and supply chain. GM got component suppliers’ commitment for all the parts required to build the Ventec ventilator, broke down the machine and developed an efficient manufacturing plan.

GM choose its Kokomo, Ind. precision electronics plant equipped with a clean room. The plant is staffed by around 300 workers with plans to increase that to 1,000. With the production line ramp up in place and accelerating to capacity, GM started shipping ventilators in mid-April, and by early June expects to be producing 1,000 a month.

Car makers are well-suited for these partnerships for several reasons. Automotive manufacturers already work with components that are similar to the ones found in ventilators, but cars are highly complex products that require a unique mix of engineering knowledge, planning, production coordination, and supply chain logistics to build.

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