Arsenal of Health

Features - Cover Story

North American auto industry responds to COVID-19 crisis, shifting production to a host of medical components.

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At General Motors’ Kokomo, Indiana, plant, workers assemble Ventec Life Systems ventilators to fill a federal emergency contract. [Photo courtesy of General Motors]

Less than an hour after executives announced plans to make ventilators at Ford’s Rawsonville Components Plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, Corey Frost had 62 voicemails from people volunteering to work. Within a day, 1,200 Ford workers raised their hands to go back to work.

“Our skilled trades guys, they were working 13 hours a day, 7 days a week for three weeks” to convert space in Rawsonville from automotive component production to ventilator assembly, says Frost, president of the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 898. “This virus is really bad here in Michigan, but our guys came out and put their own lives in jeopardy to build something that could possibly save someone’s life. They could have stayed home on the couch and made almost as much.”

During World War II, Southeast Michigan won the title Arsenal of Democracy from historians who noted the region’s transformation from automotive manufacturing to wartime production.

The rapid response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been more impressive by many metrics. Shifting from cars to tanks and planes took 18 months in the 1940s, and full capacity took nearly two years. Ford and General Motors (GM) both launched ventilator production in April, about a month after discussions began.

Vehicles and medical equipment – they don’t have a lot in common other than being in strictly regulated industries. What has made this rapid transformation work has been collaboration between multiple partners to adopt best practices from wildly differing businesses, applying new technologies where possible, and putting in vast amounts of work in incredibly challenging conditions.

Before GM and Ford began making ventilators in their own plants, they partnered with medical device makers to offer the auto industry’s greatest asset – expertise in building high quantities very quickly.

GM partnered with ventilator maker Ventec, sending a team of industrial engineers to its Washington headquarters to identify where automotive assembly techniques could alleviate production bottlenecks. Ford’s first foray into medical was diving through its parts bins to find automotive components that might suit 3M’s need to boost production of powered respirators for healthcare workers. It turns out, fans that blow cool air into the seat cushions of F-150 pickups are suitable for pumping air in a respirator.

However, with demand for hundreds of thousands of ventilators nationwide, tweaking production at a few plants wasn’t going to be enough. GM began contract manufacturing ventilators for Ventec from its Kokomo, Indiana, electronics plant. Ford partnered with GE Healthcare, who licensed the Airon pNeuton ventilator design from small, Florida-based Airon and hired Ford as its contract manufacturer to produce them.

Manufacturing know-how

For both automakers, speed was critical. Engineering review processes that typically take months were completed in days. Ford spokesman Mike Levine says two teams supported the teardown and rebuild of Airon’s ventilator to ensure that Ford could build it. Engineers in Dearborn, Michigan, examined CAD files and build instructions, and two engineers flew down to Florida to scan several components with 3D imaging equipment. Two days after hearing from GE Healthcare, Ford was confident they could make the pNeuton.

“We have fantastically smart manufacturing and purchasing teams, and they tackled this problem faster than anything we’ve done before,” Levine says.

GM is under contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human services to supply the Ventec ventilators for the federal stockpile. Ford-made ventilators go into GE Healthcare’s distribution system, and GE officials say they’re working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to deliver them to where needs are the greatest.

Protective equipment

Though Ford and GM are making the largest pieces of medical equipment during the pandemic, several companies have begun producing face shields, face masks, and other protective gear for hospital workers. Toyota’s TILT lab in Georgetown, Kentucky, began 3D printing components for transparent plastic face shields for first responders but found that additive manufacturing (AM) was too slow for the volumes the automaker wanted to produce. In five days, instead of the typical two months the process normally takes, engineers had designed, tested, and approved a mold to make plastic injection-molded components.

Every Detroit automaker is making surgical-style face masks for the healthcare industry. Ford officials say they also plan to keep a substantial portion of those masks to distribute at its plants. New work rules mandate the use of face masks at all Ford facilities until the COVID-19 crisis ends.

Frost, the UAW official, says seeing the companies, unions, regulators, and workers come together so quickly has been the most amazing part of the experience.

“When the need is there, people respond. That’s that,” Frost concludes. “The people coming into the plant, they come with so much energy to get this done. There’s a fire in them.”

Airon USA

Ford Motor Co. 

GE Healthcare 

General Motors (GM) 

MedWorld Advisors 

Toyota Motor Sales USA

Ventec Life Systems