From cars to masks and ventilators: Automakers’ new mission during coronavirus (UPDATED)

During World War II, U.S. carmakers became an integral part of the “Arsenal of Democracy” as General ...
23/03/2020
Joaquín Ruhi

During World War II, U.S. carmakers became an integral part of the “Arsenal of Democracy” as General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Studebaker, Nash, Packard, Willys-Overland, American Bantam and International Harvester transitioned from making automobiles and civilian trucks to tanks, trucks and aircraft (or engines and parts for the latter) for the war effort. Now, as COVID-19 coronavirus takes hold throughout the world, there is talk of a new battle, as automakers worldwide are asked to join an “Arsenal of Health” and assist in producing much-needed medical equipment to help combat this pandemic.

The first carmaker to do this, appropriately enough, was BYD, which is based in Shenzhen, China and backed by U.S. investor Warren Buffett.  Earlier this month, it began turning out 5 million face masks and 300,000 bottles of hand sanitizer a day. Automakers will probably need to help with more complex items, though.

Respirator masks: the relatively easy part

One of the most sought-after items are the specialized N95 respirator masks, along with other types of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as medical gowns. Commitments here come from carmakers FCA (Fiat Chrysler), VW (Volkswagen) and Tesla. According to a letter sent by FCA CEO Michael Manley, the carmaker plans to convert one of its Asian plants to production of the masks, with an eventual target of 1,000,000 masks per month. VW Group also plans to build up production capacity for protective masks in China, as well as supporting German authorities with temperature measuring devices, masks, disinfectants and diagnostic equipment.

Ford’s plans are a bit more ambitious, as it is designing a full-face shield said to be more effective than N95 respirator masks alone. The shields would be manufactured at Ford subsidiary Troy Design and Manufacturing’s facilities in Plymouth, Michigan, at a rate of 100,000 per week.

Tesla is not going the manufacturing route, but instead secured 50,000 N95 masks that were sent to the University of Washington School of Medicine, plus an additional supply of masks and gowns sent to UCLA Health in Los Angeles.

Beyond the carmaking world, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg donated 720,000 masks it had purchased during the wildfire crisis, and Apple CEO Tim Cook plans to send at least 2 million masks. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos provided something of a reality check, however. While also placing orders for “millions of face masks”, he reminded us that “masks remain in short supply globally and are at this point being directed by governments to the highest-need facilities like hospitals and clinics”.

Ventilators: where things get really complicated

The most critical and acute shortage, however, is in ventilators that are far more tricky and complex to manufacture. These devices help people when they can’t breathe on their own by delivering air through a tube in the patient’s windpipe into the lungs. Severe cases of COVID-19 require a ventilator to be able to deliver enough oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body, without which the patient could die.

There are currently somewhere between 170,000 and 200,000 ventilators in the United States, while it is estimated that the ever-growing pandemic could see as many as 960,000 patients requiring ventilators.

The componentry, skill sets and testing required to manufacture ventilators as opposed to automobiles means that, more likely than not, we’re talking months before we see ventilators either built by or featuring input from carmakers. As Tesla’s Elon Musk so aptly put it: “Ventilators are not difficult, but cannot be produced instantly.”

Nevertheless, here’s an overview by country on some of the current major initiatives by carmakers to help increase ventilator production:

United States

In a tweet, president Donald Trump gave Ford, General Motors and Tesla the fast go-ahead to make ventilators and other (unspecified) metal products. GM is partnering with Ventec Life Systems to produce up to 200,000 ventilators at GM’s Kokomo, Indiana facility, with GM and its supplier base sourcing 95% of the parts.

Tesla is in discussions with medical device maker Medtronic and, in the interim, is importing 1255 ventilators no longer needed in China for use in Los Angeles. Those are built by Medtronic, ResMed and Philips.

Ford will partner with GE Healthcare to produce a simplified version of the latter’s existing Carescape R860 ventilator. In addition, the carmaker will team up with 3M to increase manufacturing capacity of yet another weapon in the anti-COVID-19 battle, the powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR).

Germany

Volkswagen possesses over 125 industrial 3-D printers, and those will be pressed into action to help manufacture hospital ventilators and other life-saving equipment as soon as they understand the requirements and receive parts blueprints. VW Group divisions Skoda, Porsche and Bentley may be involved in those efforts.

VW and Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler VW have also agreed to donate more than 300,000 protective masks, and BMW has expressed an interest in manufacturing 3-D-printed parts for medical equipment.

United Kingdom

After initially urging Ford, Jaguar Land Rover, Honda and PSA Group’s Vauxhall unit to help build ventilators to combat COVID-19, the call to action was instead answered by a consortium led by 3 entities: aerospace engineer Meggitt and automakers McLaren and Nissan. McLaren is tasked with creating a simple design, while Nissan would support existing ventilator producers. A prototype should be created this week, and manufacturing should start in 4 weeks’ time.

Italy

At the epicenter of the European COVID-19 pandemic, Fiat Chrysler and Ferrari are teaming up with Italy’s largest producer of ventilators, Siare Engineering to help boost production of the equipment. Siare’s ventilator factory just happens to be near Ferrari’s vaunted Maranello facility.

Other notable ventilator manufacturers

Besides those linked and listed throughout the previous text, other notable ventilator manufacturers who may yet tap into carmakers’ expertise and assistance include Hamilton Medical , Oxylator , Vyaire Medical , Getinge , Dräger, Aeonmed and Löwenstein Medical .

Note: The Respirator Masks and United States sections of this article have been updated since our initial publication of this article.

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