General Motors began producing protective masks at its old transmission plant in Warren, MI, as it, along with Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, moved forward with plans to make medical equipment needed to fight the coronavirus, which has become the deadliest threat to U.S. public health in more than a century.
The start of GM's production of face masks in Warren follows a tumultuous weekend that saw GM criticized on Twitter and in a televised press conference by President Trump, who appeared frustrated about the complexity of finding suppliers, converting facilities and gathering workers to build ventilators that help the seriously ill breathe while they're hospitalized.
On Friday, Trump had criticized GM and its Chairman and CEO Mary Barra, saying the Detroit automaker had failed to meet earlier agreements to make ventilators and was reducing the number it said it could produce while increasing the price. “Always a mess with Mary B.,” Trump tweeted before invoking the Defense Protection Act, which gives him power to order companies to make critical supplies.
On Sunday, Trump reversed course. “General Motors is doing a fantastic job,” he said during a White House press conference. “I don't think we have to worry about General Motors now.”
More than a week earlier, on March 20, GM and Seattle-based Ventec Life Systems announced a partnership to produce ventilators in response to the COVID-19 pandemic even though a contract between Ventec and the federal government had not been reached.
As of this morning, Ventec and the White House had not reached agreement on a ventilator contract, a GM source said. GM is merely acting as Ventec’s contract assembler.
The automaker has made clear it will not make a profit on ventilator production, and that its services will be supplied “at cost,” even if its contribution amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars.
Ventec CEO Chris Kepler told NBC News the partnership was making steady progress in ramping up large-scale production of the life-saving medical equipment before Trump invoked the Defense Production Act.
GM spokesman Kevin Kelly said in a social-media post Ventec and GM found global sources for all 700 necessary components to make the ventilators at a GM plant in Kokomo, IN.
Suppliers have been told to gear up for production of as many as 200,000 machines. Reaching that number will take several months.
The Kokomo facility, which GM took over after Delphi divested of it as part of its 2005 bankruptcy, was chosen for the ventilator work because it had available capacity and because the facility already was prepared as a “clean-room” environment to manufacture high-tech electronics, the kind necessary for ventilators.
“Unlike a car assembly line, the manufacturing process is fairly labor-intensive,” Kelly said of the ventilator project. “GM plans to deploy 1,000 handraisers among its existing employees, and may hire new workers, too.”
It might take more than a month, a GM insider says, to ramp up production to full speed – a monthly rate of 10,000 ventilators.
Prototype builds of the ventilators will begin next week. They will need to be validated by Ventec, GM and the government before production begins. The government will decide where the Ventec/GM ventilators will be shipped.
“We are moving mountains to make this happen,” the GM insider says. “No one was dragging their feet.”
Ford is joining with General Electric to make ventilators and is in separate talks with the U.K. government about making the breathing machines there as well. Hospitals and state and local officials in several parts of the U.S. say ventilators are in short supply.
In addition, Ford plans to assemble more than 100,000 face shields per week and leverage its in-house 3D-printing capability to produce components for use in ventilators and personal protective equipment.
“This is such a critical time for America and the world. It is a time for action and cooperation,” says Bill Ford, Ford’s executive chairman. “By coming together across multiple industries, we can make a real difference for people in need and for those on the front lines of this crisis.”
Ford and 3M teams also have repurposed off-the-shelf items such as fans from the Ford F-150’s cooled seats for airflow, 3M HEPA air filters to filter airborne contaminants such as droplets that carry virus particles and portable battery packs to power these respirators for up to eight hours.
The first 1,000 face shields were being tested last week at Detroit hospitals. Roughly 75,000 of these shields were expected to be finished last week and more than 1,000 face shields per week will be produced at Ford subsidiary Troy Design and Manufacturing’s facilities in Plymouth, MI.
FCA is converting its first plant to produce face masks for donation to first responders and health-care workers, says CEO Mike Manley. The first machinery has been delivered and installed with supply and donation coming on stream in the coming weeks.
The UAW has helped by lining up workers for the various health-care initiatives.
At the GM plant in Warren, the turnaround is dramatic. The plant was left vacant last summer and then presumed to have closed permanently under GM’s new labor pact with the UAW ratified last autumn.
It is staffed now by paid volunteers drawn from workers idled by the recent cuts in production triggered by the coronavirus.