Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk on Sunday said that his companies are on track to build and ship approximately 1,200 direly-needed ventilators as soon as this week.
General Motors, which last week was the first automaker to announce that it was considering restarting its stalled factories to help build ventilators, also announced progress over the weekend. The company reached an agreement with Ventec Life Systems that will allow the medical device manufacturer to “leverage GM’s logistics, purchasing and manufacturing expertise to build more of their critically important ventilators.” ‘
“We are working closely with Ventec to rapidly scale up production of their critically important respiratory products to support our country’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic,” GM CEO Mary Barra said in a statement. “We will continue to explore ways to help in this time of crisis.”
Ford also says it is exploring its options to potentially build the sorely-needed ventilators. “We’re moving fast to address these efforts and will provide more information when we have it,” a Ford spokesman wrote in an email to Cheddar.
Ventilators, which help patients breathe, are among the most in-demand medical devices as cases of coronavirus, or COVID-19, have soared across the country and around the world. The disease causes respiratory symptoms, which can be severe in more serious cases, leading to a shortage of the devices.
President Trump had been expected to order certain companies to begin making ventilators and other sorely needed supplies, such as N95 masks and other personal protection, after invoking the Defense Production Act last week. However, the president has so far refrained from using that authority, and he took to Twitter on Sunday to praise the announcements from GM and Tesla:
The Food and Drug Administration this weekend relaxed certain restrictions to accelerate the construction of ventilators and to increase the devices’ capacity, such as by nixing certain pre-market reviews and allowing devices designed for ambulances to be used in hospital settings.
“The FDA’s new actions will mean America can make more ventilators during this crisis,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement.
Converting a factory from building cars to making ventilators is a considerable challenge, experts say – the sort of overnight move not seen since factories transformed to supply the “arsenal of democracy” during World War II.
But automakers may not necessarily be using their main assembly plants for the effort. For example, molding plastics, creating dies and machining metal make up a major part of the supply chain – yet take up only part of a factory or are handled by smaller suppliers. And they’re relatively easy to change quickly, especially with molded plastics.
“It's a big change – and if you look at things historically, it would be an enormous change,” said Mark Gottfredson, who co-leads the Americans Automotive and Mobility Practice at Bain & Co. “But if you look at some of the facilities out there, where you've got machining facilities, plastic injection-molding machines – switching those machines over is not that big of a deal. ”
That shift by automakers, especially ones that are the size of GM, promises to have an outsize impact on manufacturing capacity. The automotive industry’s manufacturing and logistics capacities are enormous, dwarfing those of the medical device sector.
“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 dies 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.”
Tesla’s Musk initially seemed reluctant to start making ventilators, writing on Twitter last week, “We will make ventilators if there is a shortage.” That caveat prompted an outcry on Twitter, with many people pointing to the nationwide – and worldwide – shortfall in available ventilators. The following day, Musk posted an about-face:
He has since said that Tesla and SpaceX are also sharing their supplies of N95 masks.
“With GM’s help, Ventec will increase ventilator production,” said Chris Kiple, Ventec Life Systems CEO. “By tapping their expertise, GM is enabling us to get more ventilators to more hospitals much faster. This partnership will help save lives.”
Updated March 23 with a comment from Ford.