The Big Three vs. COVID-19

In a flurry that feels like Santa’s workshop in emergency mode, local manufacturers are rolling medical equipment off production lines at record speed.
medical equipment manufacturing illustration
Illustration by Alexander Shammami

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses have banned together, partnered with competitors, set up new production lines, and pumped out medical equipment seemingly overnight. The Big Three are working on ventilators, face masks, and more. Suppliers are creating parts and production-line-ready machines, and employees are helping from behind face masks.

Making medical supplies is no small task. According to an opinion piece written by Rick Kline Jr., president of Gardner Business Media Inc., that appeared in The Wall Street Journal, every link in a supply chain that produces medical technology has to follow certified processes that are overseen by quality managers and manufacturing engineers.

Sourcing the components of devices such as ventilators takes up to a year under normal circumstances, Michael A. Cusumano, distinguished professor of management at MIT, told Slate. For the sake of time, many manufacturers are looking to local companies for components that would usually come from other countries. Most of these domestic operations aren’t used to handling large orders — and after they source the parts, companies have to retrofit plants that produced vital equipment like circuit boards and train workers.

Local organizations are rallying and organizing the efforts. The Centrepolis Accelerator in Southfield, which is associated with Lawrence Technological University and supports manufacturing in the region, is working with its partners to provide supplies, while the Michigan Economic Development Corp.’s Pure Michigan Business Connect created an online platform that allows companies to list the medical supplies they have available and connects them with organizations that need them.

Here’s a breakdown from the automotive front:

On March 20, General Motors Co. in Detroit became the first company to announce its plans to begin ventilator production. It has partnered with Ventec Life Systems in Washington, which provides respiratory care products. Ventec says it is using GM’s logistics, purchasing, and manufacturing expertise.

After a brief dustup in mid-March with President Trump about the slow pace of negotiations, the automaker and its suppliers have ramped up the production of vital PPE for the front lines. The first ventilators were delivered in April, and GM received a $489.4-million federal contract for 30,000 units to be delivered to the Strategic National Stockpile by September. The production schedule allows for the delivery of 6,132 ventilators by June 1.

“We’re proud to stand with other American companies and our skilled employees to meet the needs of this global pandemic,” says Mary Barra, chairman and CEO of GM. “This partnership has rallied the GM enterprise and our global supply base to support Ventec, and the teams are working together with incredible passion and commitment.”

GM worker preparing to make ventilators
The Big Three automakers, suppliers, and UAW members are working with others to produce health care equipment. // Photo courtesy of General Motors Co.

On March 27, the automaker announced it would build Ventec’s FDA-cleared VOCSN critical care ventilators at its Kokomo, Ind., manufacturing plant. Ventec also said it was ramping up production at its manufacturing facility in Washington.

The Kokomo facility, home to Kokomo Semiconductors and part of GM Components Holdings, is the integrated circuit manufacturing arm of the automaker. Supporting the production of precision electrical components, the facility offers wafer fabrication, wafer thinning, backside metallization, wafer solder bumping, die sort testing, wafer dicing, die tape and reel loading, and integrated circuit package testing.

GM is also making medical masks at its former Warren Transmission Operations for the new production lines. The goal is to produce up to 50,000 masks every day, or up to 1.5 million masks per month.

GM worked with Auburn Hills’ Esys Automation and its parent company, Holland-based JR Automation, to design and build the machinery needed to assemble the masks. GM approached Esys on March 21 and the supplier delivered the machinery in six days. Within hours, the first masks rolled off the assembly line.

On March 30, Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn announced it would produce ventilators. The company is working with Chicago-based GE Healthcare to produce 50,000 units by July and up to 30,000 per month thereafter as needed.

Ford is providing its manufacturing capabilities to scale production, and GE Healthcare is extending its clinical expertise; the license for the current ventilator design comes from Airon Corp., a privately held company in Florida that specializes in pneumatic life support products. The model uses air pressure to operate without the need for electricity.

To streamline the process and meet demand early on, a Ford team was sent to Florida to work with Airon and boost production there. Additional manufacturing was scheduled to start the week of April 20 at Ford’s Rawsonville Components Plant in Ypsilanti, and 500 UAW-represented employees will work nearly around the clock. Ford expected to produce 1,500 ventilators by the end of April and 50,000 by Independence Day.

The Airon model is the second ventilator collaboration between Ford and GE Healthcare. On March 24, the two companies announced a potential effort to produce a simplified GE Healthcare ventilator.

The Rundown

The automaker is also working with Minnesota’s 3M to increase the manufacturing capacity of 3M’s powered air-purifying respirator. The teams are using existing parts to save time, including fans from the Ford F-150’s cooled seats, 3M’s HEPA air filters, and portable battery packs. Ford is also looking into building the respirators in one of its Michigan facilities.

On its own, Ford is making face shields for medical workers and first responders. It expects to pump out more than 100,000 face shields per week at Troy Design and Manufacturing, a Ford subsidiary in Plymouth Township.

In turn, the 3-D printing capabilities at Ford’s Advanced Manufacturing Center in Redford Township are being used to make components and subassemblies for use in personal protective equipment.

“Working with 3M and GE, we have empowered our teams of engineers and designers to be scrappy and creative, to quickly help scale up production of this vital equipment,” says Jim Hackett, president and CEO of Ford

Fiat Chrysler Automotive in Auburn Hills, meanwhile, plans to make more than 1 million face masks per month for donation to health care workers and first responders. Production capacity was installed in mid-March, and the initial distribution ramped up soon afterward.

Already, FCA donated 500,000 masks to emergency operation centers in Oakland and Wayne counties. According to Reuters, FCA also partnered with Italy’s Siare Engineering to make hundreds of ventilators that will be used at hospitals around the country.

“Protecting our first responders and health care workers has never been more important,” says Mike Manley, CEO of FCA. “In addition to the support we’re giving to increase the production of ventilators, we canvassed our contacts across the health care industry and it was very clear that there’s an urgent and critical need for face masks.”