Mar 21, 2020 - Politics & Policy

GM is trying to help speed up ventilator production, and keep up with Trump

President Trump speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus. Photo: JIM WATSON / Getty Images

General Motors is exploring how it can help a small ventilator manufacturer ramp up production, but it is unlikely to make medical equipment itself as part of a broader wartime response to the novel coronavirus, as President Trump suggested Friday.

Why it matters: While GM CEO Mary Barra offered the automaker's help in fighting the global pandemic, the company is scrambling to keep up with the president's public statements. But it is wrong to assume that automakers can quickly retool industrial factories to make precision medical equipment the way they made bombs, tanks and airplanes during World War II.

Driving the news: At a press briefing Friday, Trump was asked if he could name any of the private companies that would manufacture medical supplies for the federal government under the Defense Production Act, which he invoked this week.

  • "I will be, but first I want to get approval. I assume they’d like it but I’ll let you know. One company that has openly stated it is General Motors," Trump responded to reporters' questions.

Reality check: GM has made no public commitment to produce medical supplies, but issued two statements, first on Wednesday and again late Friday to try to keep up with the Trump administration's public remarks.

Where it stands: GM said Friday evening it is collaborating with Ventec Life Systems, a manufacturer of an innovative multi-function ventilator, to see how it can help them increase production.

  • Ventec's product, approved by the FDA in 2017, combines five respiratory functions into a single, portable device that reduces the space, staff and supplies needed to manage patients on a ventilator.

What they're saying:  

  • Barra, in a statement: “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. We will continue to explore ways to help in this time of crisis.”
  • Chris Kiple, CEO, Ventec Life Systems, emailed Axios: "Ventilator manufacturers produce thousands of ventilators; auto manufactures produce millions of automobiles — they understand how to scale manufacturing and could be a helpful resource to expedite ventilator production.”

What's really happening:

  • On Thursday, a small team of senior manufacturing executives from GM flew to Seattle, and on Friday morning they visited Ventec's manufacturing facility in suburban Bothell, Wash., to learn about their product and manufacturing processes.

Their focus is on how GM can leverage its manufacturing expertise to help Ventec squeeze out more ventilators, according to a GM source.

  • There are no plans for GM to manufacture ventilators or parts for Ventec.
  • More likely, GM could use its global scale to lean on suppliers, including raw materials suppliers, to provide the components that Ventec needs.
  • It could also offer its expertise in mass production techniques to optimize Ventec's assembly processes.

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 — and the virus has slowed production in many parts of the world.
  • Even where factories are producing ventilator parts, shipping is complicated by a drastic reduction in cargo carriers and air freight.
  • GM could potentially use its logistics networks to get those parts delivered to Ventec's facility faster.

Yes, but: There are many reasons why it's not feasible for an auto manufacturer to quickly retool a factory for ventilator production.

  • GM — or any experienced manufacturer — says it could easily 3D-print needed parts like valves as long as it had the math formulas, for example.
  • But getting clearance from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration is a giant hurdle.
  • The FDA must validate any new manufacturing facility for products like respiratory devices, a process that can take months or even years.

The bottom line: All options are on the table, says GM.

Go deeper

The race to make more masks and ventilators

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The U.S. is scouring the globe and leaning on non-medical manufacturers to help overcome shortages of ventilators, masks, gloves and gowns.

Why it matters: Nearly 90% of U.S. mayors who responded to a national survey on coronavirus preparedness said they lack sufficient tests kits, face masks and other protective equipment for their emergency responders and medical workers, the Washington Post reports.

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Ford, GE aim to make 50,000 ventilators in 100 days

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Ford and GE Healthcare announced plans on Monday to build a simplified ventilator design licensed from a Florida medical technology company, with the goal of producing 50,000 machines by early July, and up to 30,000 a month thereafter, to fight the coronavirus.

Why it matters: The companies are moving in "Trump time" to meet demand for urgently needed ventilators, says White House Defense Production Act Coordinator Peter Navarro. But with deaths expected to peak in two weeks, the machines won't arrive in large numbers in time to help the hardest-hit cities.

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The massive disruption caused by COVID-19 could lead companies to tap automation to manufacture products much closer to home.

Why it matters: The pandemic is revealing that the globalized supply chain that brings us many of our products is shockingly fragile. Easily programmable industrial robots could make it simpler to produce what we use here in the U.S., reducing that vulnerability.