Cleveland, Ohio – As President Donald Trump used the Defense Production Act Friday to order General Motors (GM) to produce ventilators, a move the automaker announced it was making a few hours earlier.
"Our negotiations with GM regarding its ability to supply ventilators have been productive, but our fight against the virus is too urgent to allow the give-and-take of the contracting process to continue to run its normal course," Trump said. "GM was wasting time. Today’s action will help ensure the quick production of ventilators that will save American lives."
In response, GM officials reiterated that the automaker has been working non-stop for the past two weeks to boost production of Ventilators from Washington-based Ventec Life Systems. GM had been supporting Ventec's existing plants but announced plans Friday to begin building ventilators in Indiana by the end of next month and surgical masks in Michigan this week.
“We are proud to stand with other American companies and our skilled employees to meet the needs of this global pandemic,” said Mary Barra, GM chairman and CEO. GM announced plans on March 23, to support Washington-based Ventilator producer Ventec Life Systems, giving the medical products company access to its logistics and purchasing networks and sending engineers to its plants to identify production bottlenecks.
On Friday, the automaker said it will build Ventec’s VOCSN ventilators in Kokomo, Indiana, at a components plant that typically makes automotive electronics. The companies are targeting 10,000 machines per month by the end of April with the ability to scale up for more if needed.
The announcement came as Trump criticized GM on Twitter, claiming that GM promised more machines earlier and that it wants too much money for them.
“As usual with “this” General Motors, things just never seem to work out,” Trump tweeted. “They said they were going to give us 40,000 much needed Ventilators, “very quickly”. Now they are saying it will only be 6000, in late April, and they want top dollar. Always a mess with Mary B.”
GM officials have been in constant contact with lawmakers and the administration, but until Friday, the company had not publicly committed to large-scale ventilator production beyond supporting Ventec. Officials at the automaker say they’re contributing labor and materials for the ventilators at its own cost.
“GM is in the position to help build more ventilators because of the remarkable performance of GM and Ventec’s global supply base,” Barra said. “Our joint teams have moved mountains to find real solutions to save lives and fight the pandemic.”
Trump also said GM should reopen the Lordstown, Ohio, plant it closed last year as Chevy Cruze sales fell and make ventilators there. He also urged Ford to get involved. GM sold the Lordstown plant last year to Lordstown Motors, a startup company that plans to make electric pickups. The president praised the sale at the time.
Ford has discussed making ventilators, but so far, the company has been supporting GE Healthcare, identifying automotive parts that can be repurposed for medical manufacturing, not building its own machines. GE Healthcare officials said last week that Ford’s help could boost production 10x.
Further confusing matters were Trump’s comments from earlier in the week that questioned whether or not large-scale manufacturing of new ventilators was even necessary, saying he didn’t think hospitals would need as many units as they were requesting.
GM officials said retooling is already taking place in Indiana, and plans to bring 1,000 workers to the plant for the construction work. Most of GM’s plants are shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19, so there are plenty of available employees.
In addition to the ventilators, GM has also begun making Level-1 surgical masks at its Warren, Michigan, plant. Within two weeks, the company hopes to produce 50,000 masks per day, ramping up to 100,000 per day if needed.
Medical masks range from units used for surgeries and procedures with little chance of fluid transfer or spray to the highly sought-after N95 respirators that block viruses such as the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The GM-built Level-1 masks are on the low end of that scale, but hospitals have requested increased availability of all masks because of the rapid spread of the virus.
GM employees in Warren were installing equipment Friday for clean-room production of masks. Mask production is set to start this week. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has already begun face mask production, and Ford workers are assembling clear face shields for first responders and healthcare workers.
Toyota, on Friday, said it has also begun 3D printing face shields and is looking for partners to help it begin face mask and ventilator work.
About the author: Robert Schoenberger is the editor of Today's Motor Vehicles and Today's eMobility and a contributor to Today's Medical Developments and Aerospace Manufacturing and Design. He has written about the automotive industry for more than 20 years at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio; The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky; and The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi.