Hospital ventilator. Photo: Getty Images
March 19, 2020
Less than a day after shutting factories across North America, top U.S. automakers are looking at restarting their production lines to make ventilators that are suddenly in short supply as cases of coronavirus soar.
The potential pivot recalls how factories shifted to produce the “arsenal of democracy” during World War II.
General Motors chairman and CEO Mary Barra was apparently the first chief of a U.S. automaker to publicly acknowledge that the company was considering restarting production to make ventilator or ventilator components. The device helps patients breathe, and it’s become the difference between life and death in thousands of more severe cases of coronavirus, or COVID-19, which affects the body’s respiratory system.
“GM is working to help find solutions for the nation during this difficult time and has offered to help, and we are already studying how we can potentially support production of medical equipment like ventilators,” a GM spokesperson told Politico.
In a statement to Cheddar, a GM spokesperson emphasized that while "we haven’t shifted to manufacturing ventilators,” the company is "currently doing an internal study to both understand the needs to help with the crisis and what our internal production capabilities may be."
The acknowledgment came just hours after White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow on Wednesday said in an interview with Fox News that he had discussed coronavirus responses with executives from two of Detroit’s Big Three automakers.
Ford and Fiat Chrysler joined GM yesterday in announcing a total halt to production in North America through at least March 30. Honda and Nissan made similar announcements.
“One of them told me that even though the men and women may be off for two weeks due to the virus, she’s going to try to call them back so they can produce ventilators,” Kudlow said. “They might even ask them to do it on a voluntary basis for civic and patriotic reasons.”
The comment immediately put a spotlight on Barra, the only woman serving as CEO of any of the three automakers.
Surging infection rates of coronavirus, and particularly more serious cases, have resulted in a shortage of ventilators. The companies that make the devices meanwhile say they’re not able to keep up with demand.
GM could effectively turbocharge medical device manufacturing, automotive experts say. The company boasts enormous manufacturing and logistics capacities and know-how that dwarf medical device makers.
“Auto is at a much, much bigger scale, so if a manufacturer of medical equipment or protective equipment needs 100,000 of these right away — if it’s a plastic part or metal part and they can get molds or dyes together pretty quickly — they can churn out 100,000 in a day or a couple of days,” said Kristin Dziczek, vice president at the Center for Automotive Research. “Metals parts, plastic parts, electronics that need big supply purchases or that demand logistics, freight out of China — the auto industry is well-versed in handling surge capacity.”
It remained unclear Thursday morning whether other automakers would soon follow suit. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, for example, initially hedged when asked, writing on Twitter, “We will make ventilators if there is a shortage.” After users responded that there is an ongoing shortage, Musk, who also helms SpaceX, seemed to open the door to joining an effort to make the devices:
“Tesla makes cars with sophisticated HVAC systems. SpaceX makes spacecraft with life support systems. Ventilators are not difficult, but cannot be produced instantly. Which hospitals have these shortages you speak of right now?”
The near-worldwide shutdown in automotive manufacturing has defied easy comparisons. There have been localized stoppages, such as in the wake of the deadly earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan in 2011, or amid labor disputes or supply shortages. But the sudden, global halt to vehicle production appears to be unprecedented, analysts say.
“We have not seen voluntary decisions by management across continents to stop operations in the middle of production,” Neal Ganguli, a senior managing director and Automotive & Industrial Business Transformation Leader at FTI Consulting.
Tesla is one of the remaining companies that has so far declined to freeze production. The company reportedly reached an agreement with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office in California to keep its main factory in Fremont running but with a slimmed-down workforce.