Mar 20, 2020 - Health

Wartime manufacturing muscle might not solve ventilator shortage

Image of a hospital ICU bed
Intensive care room with ventilator (right). Photo: Ronald Bonss/picture alliance via Getty Images

Automakers and their parts suppliers are offering to produce desperately needed ventilators to keep coronavirus patients alive, but quickly retooling industrial factories to make precision medical equipment might not be feasible, despite the good intentions.

Why it matters: The U.S. faces a critical shortage of medical equipment to fight the disease, including ventilators that help patients breathe as well as protective gear, such as masks, gloves and gowns, for health care workers.

The big picture: The auto industry has virtually shut down in North America for deep factory cleanings, and if and when they'll resume production isn't clear.

  • Unionized auto workers at GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler are worried about contracting the virus on the assembly line and are working with the companies to restructure work shifts to mitigate the risk.

Driving the news: In a call Wednesday to inform the Trump Administration of the shutdown, GM CEO Mary Barra told White House Economic Adviser Larry Kudlow that GM wanted to help and was studying how it could potentially support production of medical equipment like ventilators.

  • That news prompted a similar statement from Ford, and later, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted, "We will make ventilators if there is a shortage."

What's happening: The Toronto-based Automotive Parts Manufacturers' Association is enlisting tool and die companies and parts suppliers to adapt their manufacturing plants on both sides of the border to produce medical supplies.

  • "Their response has been overwhelming ... Just get us the specs," APMA President Flavio Volpe told the CBC.
  • The shift to medical supplies would be easy enough to do, he said, and they could convert back to automotive manufacturing quickly.

Yes, but: Pivoting to wartime footing for ventilators is not like churning out tanks, planes and ships for World War II, says Sandy Munro, CEO of Munro & Associates, an expert in lean manufacturing who has intimate knowledge of both the auto and medical device industries.

  • Production of medical devices requires sterile rooms with much higher standards than those required in a "clean room" at an automotive paint shop, for example, he says.
  • The Food and Drug Administration would have to validate any new facilities, a process that can take up to 180 days, explains The Huffington Post.
  • The technicians who manufacture ventilators also require eight to nine months' training, says Munro.
  • "Medical devices are intricate machines on which people’s lives depend. Every step of the production process has to be precise. This isn’t just a box with an air hose on it."
  • Nor is it clear that auto workers who were afraid of infection making auto parts would feel any safer going back to produce ventilators.

One of the biggest challenges is securing components, especially the disposable, single-use tubes and masks made of highly specialized medical-grade materials, experts say.

  • Most are manufactured outside the U.S. — in Costa Rica, Japan, South Korea and China, says Munro.
  • The virus has slowed production in many parts of the world, and even where factories are producing, shipping is complicated by a drastic reduction in cargo carriers and air freight.

What to watch: The federal government could clear many of these hurdles, especially if it activates the Defense Production Act, which would mobilize private industry to assist in "national defense."

  • It could provide federal help in the form of loans, faster regulatory and customs processes and even the chartering of planes and ships to deliver components more quickly.

Go deeper: At war with no ammo’: Doctors say shortage of protective gear is dire (NYT)

Go deeper