Ford Motor Co. will begin production of ventilators needed to treat desperately ill COVID-19 patients by April 20, the automaker announced Monday, while it is already working with GE Healthcare to rapidly expand that company’s production of the medical devices.
The move comes as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the country, hospitals in many locations running out of space and desperately short on supplies including both masks and ventilators. Ford is one of several automakers stepping in to help produce medical gear. General Motors is working with Ventec Life Systems to produce ventilators, as well.
“Our decision to (work with) Ford was based on speed and the ability to ramp up production as quickly as possible,” Tom Westrick, vice president and chief quality officer, GE Healthcare, said during a Monday afternoon teleconference.
GE already is one of the country’s largest producers of ventilators, the devices helping patients suffering from pneumonia and other COVID-19 complications. But the challenge has been to provide enough to meet the demand during a pandemic that has seen the number of patients diagnosed with the disease grow at an exponential rate. The White House, which originally suggested the pandemic was “under control” after just 15 patients were diagnosed, now warns the U.S. could suffer anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 fatalities related to the coronavirus – more technically known as SAR-CoV2.
Ford first announced plans to work with GE Healthcare a week ago and quickly put together two teams to address ways to boost production at GE’s current factory in Madison, Wisconsin, while also launching production at a Ford plant.
The Madison plant will continue to assemble the GE Carescape R860 ventilator, a sophisticated computer-controlled system.
The goal was to get “focused on breaking all the constraints and bottlenecks in the process,” said Adrian Price, Ford’s director of Global Manufacturing Core Engineering. The “intent,” added Jim Baumbick,Ford’s vice president of Enterprise Product Line Management is a “doubling (of) output over the next couple of weeks.
Meanwhile, the new partners are setting up a separate assembly line at Ford’s Rawsonville (Michigan) Components Plant. That facility will produce what GE’s Westrick described as a more “basic” ventilator licensed from Airon Corp.
“It’s a very simple version, a basic model (that is) very easy to set up,” noted Westrick.
The target is to produce 50,000 of the Airon ventilators during the next 100 days, with production of an additional 30,000 a month, as needed, after that.
Ford has already begun lining up the necessary components, the Airon requiring as many as 400 parts and subassemblies. The automaker has also recruited 500 paid volunteers from its ranks of union workers. The effort will start on a single shift and then quickly ramp up to a three-shift, 24-hour operation.
Ford Director Price said the company will implement a number of steps it has been developing to minimize the risk of infection among the workers who will be working at the Rawsonville plant. It expects to take those same steps at its other plants when they begin to reopen.
Ford shuttered its North American production network more than a week ago. It originally intended to relaunch on March 30, but, like its competitors, has pushed back the date. It now wants to start up a Mexican assembly plant on April 6 and then open four assembly plants in the U.S. eight days later. But there are growing questions about whether that will be possible in light of the White House announcement over the weekend that social distancing will remain necessary through the end of April.
Along with Ford, a number of automakers have announced plans to gear up production of medical hardware. General Motors is working with Seattle-based Ventec on ventilators. Like Ford, GM will help the medical supplier boost production at its own plant, while also setting up a new assembly line at one of its facilities in Kokomo, Indiana.