When President Trump last week criticized
effort to produce ventilators, GM executives were flabbergasted. They felt the company was being unfairly targeted by the president, say people familiar with their thinking.
GM had begun collaborating with a ventilator company a couple of weeks earlier. It had mobilized more than 1,000 employees and nearly 100 auto suppliers to start making the machines, which can be used to help patients with the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
“We won’t let it deter us,” GM global manufacturing chief Gerald Johnson said in an interview over the weekend. “Every ventilator is a life.”
From GM’s account, the car maker has been hustling to do its part since mid-March.
Mr. Trump on Friday expressed frustration with the timeline, expecting the company and its ventilator partner, Ventec Life Systems, would be able to ramp up faster.
By daybreak, they were huddled in a conference room at Ventec, a small maker of ventilators whose entire operation is smaller than some GM car dealerships. Ventec executives had turned over blueprints for the roughly 700 parts that go into its ventilator to the GM engineers, hoping to get their help scaling up production.
The GM contingent, which usually specializes in designing and sourcing parts for building vehicles, used their smartphones to take videos of the toaster-sized machines being built by hand. A box of parts was overnighted to Michigan.
“The ramp-up schedule we’re committing to is faster than anything we’ve ever done,” said Phil Kienle, GM’s head of manufacturing in North America, who was among the GM team that visited Ventec and described the effort in an interview Sunday. “We’re all outside our comfort zone.”
A shortage of the machines for patients with the disease, Covid-19, has sent government officials and the private sector scrambling. Manufacturers from GM,
Ford Motor Co.
to medical-device giants like
and even British vacuum-maker Dyson are gearing up to boost production. Governors and hospitals are pleading for more and warning of the need to ration the machines.
Ford said Monday it is working with
General Electric Co.
to make 50,000 ventilators at one of the auto maker’s facilities in Michigan by early July.
Medtronic on Monday said it would publicly share the design specifications for a ventilator product to allow other companies to explore rapid production of the devices.
GM disclosed on March 20 that it was working with Ventec to expand ventilator production. Ventec was taking the lead on discussions with the Trump administration, and three days later, submitted paperwork to supply the federal government with ventilators, people familiar with the matter said.
Ventec had provided a range of possibilities for monthly production of ventilators, with one as high as 20,000 a month, these people said. Each scenario required a gradual increase for the GM operation to get up and running, they said.
The Trump administration was under the impression it could move to full production faster. “They said they were going to give us 40,000 much needed Ventilators, ‘very quickly’,” Mr. Trump said in a
post Friday. “Now they are saying it will only be 6000, in late April.”
Over the weekend, GM sought to emphasize the extent of the company’s efforts to administration officials, a person familiar with the matter said. The president’s tone changed Sunday, saying the auto maker is doing a “fantastic job.”
GM said it would start producing ventilators at one of its facilities in Indiana and eventually ramp up to 10,000 of the machines a month, although only a few thousand will be made in the first several weeks.
The auto industry has been drafted to help during past national crises. GM and Ford built trucks and aircraft for allied forces during World War II, part of a broader effort by American industry known as the “Arsenal of Democracy.” Ford in the 1940s developed an “iron lung” to help polio patients.
There is little overlap between making cars—a highly automated process involving fast-moving assembly lines and robotic welding machines, which plays out in vast factories, some the size of 100 football fields—and the labor-intensive job of building ventilators, which are largely hand-built at small workstations.
But car companies are being called on to help because they typically work with thousands of parts suppliers—many making components similar to those needed for a ventilator—and are accustomed to manufacturing at a large scale.
At the same time, car makers have been in crisis mode themselves from the new coronavirus. On March 18, GM said it would shut most of its North American factories to prevent the virus from spreading among workers. GM is scrambling to conserve cash, drawing down billions of dollars in credit lines and deferring 20% of pay for nearly 70,000 salaried workers globally.
But it did move forward on the ventilators, after Kenneth Chenault, a former
American Express Co.
An initial flurry of conference calls between GM and Ventec executives revealed the magnitude of the task: the companies envision expanding Ventec’s output more than twentyfold, eventually to more than 10,000 ventilators a month. But the supply chain could never handle those volumes, the teams concluded, because ventilator suppliers are being flooded with requests to crank up production.
On March 20, Ms. Barra talked to Shilpan Amin, who is a few months into his job as head of GM’s massive parts-purchasing arm. Ms. Barra gave Mr. Amin 48 hours to figure out if GM’s supply base could source every single part so that GM could set up its own factory to build them.
By then, some of the videos and documents from Ventec’s headquarters had made their way to Mr. Amin’s people in Detroit. Hundreds of GM purchasing managers were assigned to fan out across their suppliers contacts in search of recruits.
Around 10:30 p.m. that night, Tracy Skupien, operations director for Detroit car-parts supplier Tompkins Products Inc., was at home when an urgent call from her contact at GM interrupted her glass of wine. He was about to email her detailed blueprints and specifications for 40 metal ventilator parts.
“He needed to know which ones we thought we could start making within a week,” she said. “I said, ‘We’re on it.’”
Her company got a contract for three aluminum parts and began building them last week at two plants being run by skeleton crews in Detroit, where Covid-19 cases are rising sharply.
By Saturday, inside a large conference room at GM’s engineering hub in suburban Detroit, ventilator parts were spread across tables for inspection. Dozens of supplier representatives streamed through to get a closer look at the parts. In between visits, cleaning crews descended on the room to disinfect the widgets and surfaces.
In recent days, workers at an idled GM facility in Kokomo, Ind., were ripping out carpet and knocking down walls to install large workstations where hundreds of union-represented factory workers will assemble ventilators. The employees volunteered for the job even as other car factories remain shut down to prevent the spread of the virus.
“It was my choice to come in and work here,” said Brian Shirley, a millwright helping to install equipment at the factory. “It’s a great opportunity to help the public.”
—Michael C. Bender contributed to this article.
Write to Mike Colias at [email protected]
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