An employee at a ventilator factory in Domat/Ems, Switzerland. Reuters
Carmaker Ford Motor jumped into the emergency push by major US manufacturers to produce thousands of ventilators and respirators needed to help combat the spread of the coronavirus under a partnership code-named ‘Project Apollo’.
By joining forces with General Electric’s (GE) healthcare unit and 3M Co, Ford is taking heed of US President Donald Trump’s call for US automakers to work across sectors in producing equipment needed for the pandemic.
The rapid outbreak, which has killed more than 16,500 people globally, has strained healthcare systems around the world and led to a shortage of ventilators needed to treat patients suffering from the flu-like illness, which can lead to breathing difficulties and pneumonia in severe cases.
“We’ve been in regular dialogue with federal, state and local officials to understand the areas of greatest needs,” Ford Chief Executive Jim Hackett said.
Ford said its partnerships were code-named ‘Project Apollo’ after the Apollo 13 launch in 1970 when a lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank failed two days into the mission, forcing the astronauts to improvise a fix.
Ford and GE Healthcare will expand the production of GE’s ventilator design to support patients with respiratory failure or difficulty breathing caused by the pathogen. In addition, they are developing a simplified design that Ford could begin making at one of its plants.
The plan is to get the new design approved quickly by the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA), Tom Westrick, vice president and chief quality officer at GE Healthcare, said on a conference call.
Ford also is evaluating a separate effort not involving GE with the British government to make additional ventilators.
Hackett told CNN he believes the industry can produce “hundreds of thousands” of ventilators by early to mid-May. “There’s no higher sense of urgency.”
Ford on Tuesday extended the shutdown of its North American plants beyond March 30 as originally planned, but a spokesman said the healthcare-related efforts are separate and continuing.
Separately, Ford will work with 3M to increase manufacturing capacity of its air-purifying respirators by up to a factor of 10 to meet a surge in demand for first responders and healthcare workers, while also similarly developing a simplified design that Ford could build at one of its Michigan plants.
Under the simplified design, Ford is looking at using fans from its Ford F-150 pickup’s cooled seats to make parts of the respirators.
Additionally, Ford said its US design team, working with the United Auto Workers union, was starting to test transparent full-face shields for first responders, which when paired with N95 respirator masks, could be an effective way of limiting exposure to the coronavirus. The company is targeting making more than 100,000 a week at non-vehicle manufacturing facilities in Michigan, including using 3D printers to help.
Ultimately, Ford officials want to create an open-sourced design that others can adopt and use to make their own shields.
“The teams are just getting scrappy. How do we use what we’ve got to get to something that’s capable and would meet regulatory requirements,” Jim Baumbick, the Ford vice president in charge of the automaker’s efforts, told Reuters.
General Motors and medical equipment maker Ventec are speeding up efforts under a partnership code-named “Project V” to build ventilators at a GM plant in Kokomo, Indiana, to help combat the coronavirus outbreak.
GM said on Monday that work at its Indiana plant, which makes small electronic components for cars, is part of the effort to expand ventilator production. Sources said the GM-Ventec project is known internally as “Project V.”
As part of the effort to boost ventilator output from Ventec, GM has arranged for the supply of 95% of the parts needed to build the ventilator and is seeking to source the remaining 37 necessary parts, according to an email to suppliers from Shilpan Amin, GM’s vice president of global purchasing.
The goal of the venture is to build up to 200,000 ventilators, said people familiar with the plans who asked not to be identified.
Donald Trump said on Sunday that US automakers GM, Ford Motor, and Tesla had been given the green light to produce ventilators and other items needed during the coronavirus outbreak. It was not clear what Trump meant by the companies “being given the go ahead.”