Ford and GM launch battle to produce COVID-19 ventilators

Ford and GM are partnering with ventilator makers to make the life-saving machines amid the COVID-19 pandemic, converting their plants from making vehicles to vents. (CBS)

Workers at GM and Ford are beginning to produce life-saving ventilators at Michigan plants that normally make cars and trucks.

While full production won’t begin until May, the many thousands of ventilators they make will be useful then and in later months should a COVID-19 resurgence occur in the fall or later in 2021 before a vaccine is ready and widely used.

The engineering feat of converting from making vehicles to ventilators is complex, not only because of the technology involved. Both cars and ventilators share electronics and metal and plastic parts that need to be assembled, but there are the added challenges of building thousands of medical devices rapidly with high accuracy and of keeping workers safe while they maintain personal distancing on an assembly line.

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 “We’re used to building big automotive products but scaling to product a small ventilator requires different sourcing of components and capabilities,” Adrian Price, Ford’s director of global core engineering, said in an interview with CBS This Morning. 

“There’s quite a bit that goes into taking a design that is currently produced at the rate of two a day and scaling that to over 7,000 a week,” he added.

GM is bringing back hundreds of workers to produce ventilators next week and will be imposing safety guidelines that include distancing between workers, periodic taking of temperature and scrubbing down work areas between shifts, according to the CBS report.

The two companies together are enlisting up to 1,500 workers to make ventilators, while Ford wants to produce 50,000 by July 4 and GM wants to build 200,000 overall, according to The Washington Post.

Getting fully functioning machines ready for use that are tested and reliable will be part of the process.  Some ventilators are built to operate only for short periods of time, pumping air or oxygen into a patient’s lungs, while others must pump for days.  There can be an array of electronics for controlling alarms and fail safes, as well as redundancy.  Testing of the machines will typically take a few minutes, looking at plastic and metal parts but also assessing how well a machine responds when in use, even when a patient coughs into a tube that is connected to the device, according to engineers that spoke to FierceElectronics.

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Price told the Post that Ford is looking at ways to scale up more quickly, adding that “time is of the essence.”

Ford is partnering with Airon, which normally makes up to three ventilator machines a day, while GM is working with Ventec Life Systems.

Price told the Post that Ford asked thousands of auto suppliers to retool their manufacturing to create ventilator components and found that all but one component could be purchased inside the U.S.  Ford is developing ventilators in its Rawsonville, Michigan, plant with tradesmen from Local 898 of the United Auto Workers Union, according to the Post.

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