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Covid-19 ‘Arsenal of Health’: Automakers Are Building Ventilators, Masks

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Eighty years ago, automakers called themselves the “Arsenal of Democracy” as they built bombers, tanks, and heavy trucks for World War II. Now as Ford, GM and other carmakers in the US ramp up to manufacture ventilators and even masks, they’ve been labeled the “Arsenal of Health.”

It’s possible because automakers are more than mile-long assembly lines. They also have expertise in procuring parts, they have specialized short-run assembly lines for development work, and they have 3D printers. They also have a workforce that is otherwise unoccupied since automobile manufacturing has been shut down beginning March 18. Even Tesla shut down after a short-term holdout on the part of its CEO.

In the US, 17 million motor vehicles were produced in North America last year. Ramping up production of tools for dealing with coronavirus isn’t instantaneous, so the country has been hurt by the lag between the first knowledge of coronavirus in early January and early March when life as we know it started shutting down. Early January is when US intelligence services first learned of the magnitude of problems in China and the odds of the epidemic becoming a pandemic.

Medtronic ventilator. Even the biggest suppliers can build in the low hundreds a month. Partnering with automakers improves production by at least an order of magnitude. (Photo: Medtronic)

General Motors says it will work with Ventec Life Systems of Washington State “as soon as April” to build 10,000 ventilators a month at an electrical components factory in Kokomo, Indiana. The plan is to produce up to 200,000 ventilators, which would mean production through the end of 2021. Separately, GM at a Warren, Michigan facility will start producing masks in early April, ramping up to 50,000 a day; GM says it could later double the number.

Ford will work with GE Healthcare to do additional production of GE ventilators, meanwhile developing a simplified ventilator design that Ford would build. Similarly, Ford will partner with 3M to build additional 3M respirators and, again, designing a simpler respirator it would build. And it is designing and tooling for face shields that could be turned out 100,000-per-week at a Michigan plant.

Tesla said it will reopen its idled Gigafactory 2 in Buffalo, NY, to produce Medtronic ventilators. The factory has been an alternate source of pride and anger upstate. The so-called Buffalo Billion, a state grant of that amount, went to create high-tech factories. Much of it went to a factory that was, in alliance with Panasonic, to build solar panels through Tesla subsidiary SolarCity. Then it was repurposed to build lithium-ion battery cells for Teslas, and Tesla had a deadline of April to show the factory was up and running, building batteries in quantity. Now, it’s being repurposed, at least for the time being, to build ventilators.

The major makers of ventilators, pre-coronavirus, have capacity to build ventilators in the hundreds of units per month. Now they’re ramping to double or quadruple production but the needs are in the tens of thousands per month. A hundred thousand units in April would still not meet the spike in demand.

Praise, Criticism, Praise From the White House

General Motors has been alternately praised and criticized by President Trump. Friday he said he was invoking the Defense Production Act to produce ventilators.  A White House statement Friday said:

Our negotiations with GM regarding its ability to supply ventilators have been productive, but our fight against the virus is too urgent to allow the give-and-take of the contracting process to continue to run its normal course. GM was wasting time. Today’s action will help ensure the quick production of ventilators that will save American lives.

Other reports have said GM already had the project in motion and that it was unclear if the president had invoked DPA before Friday. At several news conferences, reporters tried to get the president to say if he earlier had invoked DPA. At Friday’s event, the president talked in the same sentence about getting “General Motors” to make ventilators and then referring to “General Electric.” That was the point where he spoke of $2 billion in relief funds then said $2 trillion. (The Coronavirus Aid Package, or stimulus, is for $2 trillion.)

“Blacksmiths,” not watchmakers, and they did just: B-24 production at Ford Willow Run (MI) plant in World War II nearly equaled three aircraft companies building the Liberators. (Photo via Wikipedia)

History of Repurposed Auto Factories

The automakers and Michigan media love “Arsenal of Health” because it harks back to World War II and the “Arsenal of Democracy.” In early 1942, the US ended auto production and turned to build weapons of war. One of the greatest advantages the US and the Allies held over the Axis powers was its ability to vastly outproduce armaments as well as food and clothing.

The automakers also reveled in their ability to produce complex weapons (tanks) and even more complex weapons (bombers) when the aviation industry doubted Ford, GM, and other carmakers had the skill. James (Dutch) Kindelberger, then-president of North American Aviation (P-51 Mustang and other planes), ridiculed the idea that mere auto factory workers at Ford’s Willow Run, Michigan, plant could build an 18-ton aircraft such as the B-24 Liberator. (A 3,000-pound car of the 1930s had about 15,000 parts. The B-24 had 450,000.)

“You can’t expect a blacksmith to make a watch overnight,” Kindelberger famously said. He was wrong. By war’s end, four genuine aircraft company factories run by Consolidated Aircraft, Douglas Aircraft, and North American Aviation turned out 9,808 Liberators, while Ford’s mile-long factory (included a turntable and 90-degree turn halfway through) built 8,465, each with four Buick-built, 1,200-hp Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp engines.

Now, it’s the automakers’ turn again, including the ones who got a billion-dollar bailout a decade ago.

Top image: Ford’s Dave Jacek, 3D printing technical worker, with a prototype of a 3D-printed medical face shield done at Ford’s Advanced Manufacturing Center. (Photo: Ford)

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