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Automakers Pivot to Produce Ventilators, Respirators, and Face Masks

Ford, GM, and others are making low-cost, simplified versions of critical medical equipment to aid in the coronavirus response

3 min read

A Model A-E ventilator, left, and a simple test lung. The ventilator uses a design that operates on air pressure without the need for electricity.
A Model A-E ventilator, left, and a simple test lung. The ventilator uses a design that operates on air pressure without the need for electricity.
Photo: Ford

The sudden arrival of the new coronavirus has caused shortages of ventilators, face masks, and respirators. And those shortages have now sparked automakers, quite unexpectedly, to enter the business of manufacturing critical medical equipment.

On the surface, it makes little sense: What do the makers of Mustangs and Chevrolet Volts know about ventilators? Automakers have been first to admit—not much at all.

“We’re not the experts here, but we can help the experts,” Mike Levine, Ford spokesman, said in a phone interview.

Instead of reinventing the wheel, automakers are leveraging their expertise in fast manufacturing, logistics, and supply-chain operations. Ford CEO Jim Hackett has said it currently takes GE about 27 hours to build a ventilator, but estimates Ford can cut production time in half, to around 13 hours.

Ford has teamed up with GE Healthcare to produce 1,500 ventilators by the end of April and 12,000 by the end of May. In addition, Ford plans to make 50,000 ventilators in 100 days beginning on April 20 at a plant in Ypsilanti, Mich. The simplified, FDA-approved design, licensed from Florida-based Airon Corp., runs on pneumatic pressure and requires no electricity to operate. Ford plans to start production using paid volunteers from the United Auto Workers.

Ford engineers, collaborating with 3M, also quickly designed a streamlined powered air purifying respirator (PAPR) to safeguard doctors, nurses, and first responders.

3M streamlined powered air purifying respirator (PAPR)Photo: 3M

Ford’s PAPRs look like something out of a movie: a spacesuit-like helmet with a battery-operated blower unit that draws air through a protective filter and pushes scrubbed, cooled air through a hose and into the helmet. It’s useful anywhere that people face toxic airborne contamination, including in medicine, the military, law enforcement, firefighting, paint shops, welding, and other industries.

To save critical time, Ford identified and repurposed off-the-shelf parts to use in PAPRs, including a seat-cooling fan from its F-150 pickup truck, lithium-ion battery packs from power tools, and respirator hood fabrics sourced from paint booths. Levine compared the Ford-modified PAPR to a point-and-shoot version of a pricey DSLR camera. Ford may assemble the PAPRs in one of its own plants, and 3M will produce them as well.

Ford is also harnessing 3D printing capability at its Advanced Manufacturing Center to produce disposable, transparent air respirator masks and face shields for anyone who interacts with the public. The first shields will be tested this week at Detroit area hospitals, and Ford said it can produce 100,000 shields each week after that.

Ford's 3D printing capacity is being used to produce face shields.Photos: Ford

In a separate collaboration with Washington-based Ventec Life Systems, General Motors is rapidly retooling its electronics plant in Kokomo, Ind. to produce up to 10,000 ventilators a month beginning in mid-April, and up to 200,000 total. Ventec’s leading-edge “VOCSN” design, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2017, combines functions for ventilation, oxygen, hospital-grade suction, touch-button cough assist, and nebulization of medication in a compact, portable unit that’s roughly the size of a small microwave oven.

“It’s a true critical-care device, a machine that will breathe for you, in addition to four other therapeutic functions,” said Jim Cain, GM spokesman. GM has begun moving heavy equipment and hiring and training up to 1,000 paid volunteers and employees—a huge task that involves health screenings and printing training manuals—at its Kokomo facility, where existing clean rooms make for an easier conversion than repurposing an auto assembly or engine plant.

“It has to be a safe environment for this to work,” Cain said. “We’ll have first, one and then, two assembly lines, and we’re onboarding employees right now and training them in safety protocols.”

While the White House accused GM of “wasting time,” company officials said GM and Ventec have scrambled to complete tasks in days that would typically take weeks or months.

“Within 72 hours, we had a plan to source all 900 components” for the VOCSN machine, Cain said. Nearly 100 suppliers have been tabbed, with about 80 percent of those in North America. While Ventec is well-reputed for its design, it’s a small company that could only produce about 200 units a month. What GM brought to the table, Cain said, was global size and expertise in supply chains, logistics, and mass manufacturing.

“Global ventilator production was at capacity,” Cain said. “It’s a complex piece of machinery, and everyone is stretched thin, but we still got the job done.”

Additionally, both GM and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles are ramping up production of Level 1 surgical masks, which has GM temporarily converting a plant in suburban Detroit to produce masks beginning next week.

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