GM’s Ventilator-Making Effort Is Working On Many Levels

President Trump's public browbeating notwithstanding, the nation's automakers have stepped up to help fight the pandemic.

It’s not quite the stuff of the “Arsenal of Democracy,” but the pivot by General Motors and Ford to scale up manufacture of badly needed ventilators in concert with existing makers is emerging as a major demonstration of how America’s industrial might can help the nation rally to meet crises.

Automakers and other manufacturing giants switched businesses and geared up to supply planes and Jeeps for America’s World War II effort. But while GM’s attempt today at a fast ramp-up of an Indiana parts plant to make ventilators involves only toaster-oven-sized products, those medical devices—rather than military weapons—are the most important implements of this national moment.

President Donald Trump once again put GM CEO Mary Barra and Ford CEO Jim Hackett on the spot over the last several days by browbeating them about whether they were moving fast enough to scale up ventilator-manufacturing operations. But both companies already had been stirring vigorously for several days to gear up.

GM, with an outfit called Ventec Life Systems, plans to begin turning out thousands of machines a week whereas Ventec normally makes only 200 a month. And Ford and General Electric plan to produce 50,000 units of a different model of ventilator in 100 days at a Ford plant in Michigan beginning April 20. The Food & Drug Administration granted an exception to its usual protocols and approved the GM and Ford production of ventilators.

Of course, this transformation of an individual GM parts plant in Kokomo, Indiana, and of a Ford parts plant in Rawsonville, Michigan, isn’t a case of an automaker stopping one of its assembly lines and suddenly putting together ventilators in the middle of the plant floor. What Ford and GM are doing is using their expertise in supply chains, logistics and manufacturing engineering to break down the ventilator-making process, replicate it and scale it up quickly.

GM has cleared the floor of a plant that’s about 100,000 square feet of space. The company makes electrical components there and has taken out all the equipment and cleared the space to set up work stations where groups will assemble the ventilators on two production lines—but essentially by hand. The plant has a clean room, which is essential for medical equipment. And the automaker is mobilizing about 1,000 of its people who have volunteered to participate, including manufacturing supervisors, engineers and UAW-represented production employees.

The goal has motivated Barra and manufacturing leaders at GM as a worthy objective for rallying the company and its resources, including its engineering staff to break down the Ventec machine and figure out how to put more together faster, its procurement people to locate and coordinate with dozens of suppliers of everything from motors to hoses, its manufacturing experts to convert the Kokomo operation quickly to a whole different kind of production, and its distribution experts to work with Ventec to get all the ventilators to the government and health-care clients who are waiting so desperately for them.

One company leader described GM with this industrial challenge as “a dog with a bone” that GM “will trap in our paws” and determinedly subdue, ultimately saving lives in the process.

The scenes being described in accounts in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Bloomberg resemble one in the movie Apollo 13 where engineers at Mission Control in Houston are using duct tape to fit a square air filter into a round hole and rescue the three astronauts on the lunar mission. Last weekend, there was a large conference room at GM’s tech center near Detroit where ventilator parts were spread across tables for inspection. Reps from suppliers were streaming through to get a look at how they could help. In between, cleaning crews disinfected all the gadgets and tables.

The relationship between Trump and automotive CEOs has been complicated over the last five years. During his presidential campaign, Trump criticized former Ford CEO Mark Fields over the company’s plan to move production of small cars from the United States to Mexico. He criticized Barra over her plan to close some car plants last year. But Trump also has praised her and Hackett for expanding production in the United States. And they have stood with him over his plan to cut emissions standards while other automakers have said “Uncle!” to California’s stricter standards.

With GM and Ford now gearing up these operations to help meet the massive demand for ventilators, for the time being at least the CEOs are back on the same page with the president.