The Slatest

How Difficult Is It to Switch a Factory From Cars to Ventilators?

Unfinished cars are lined up on an assembly line on the left. Machinery surrounds them. A woman in a blue uniform walks toward them on the right.
A Ford assembly plant in Chicago on June 24. Jim Young/Getty Images

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Over the past few weeks, companies worldwide have shifted gears to help address dire shortages during the coronavirus pandemic. For some, churning out a new product was a relatively straightforward task. Distillers and perfume-makers quickly swapped spirits and scents for hand sanitizer, and clothing manufacturers just had to source the right fabrics. But ventilators—one of the most critical needs right now, especially in New York state—can require thousands of parts, and there’s little margin for error: If a ventilator breaks down, a patient’s life is at risk. Automakers, including Ford, General Motors, and Tesla, are scrambling to produce the medical device. But how hard is it to do that?

It’s tricky. “In the normal scheme of things, it would probably take six months to a year to source a product like this,” said Michael A. Cusumano, a distinguished professor of management at MIT. “Sourcing the components, getting the right materials—that’s generally the bottleneck.” Many ventilator components—including electronics and metal, plastic, and rubber parts—aren’t made in the U.S. But since the pandemic is threatening global supply chains, with halted production and transport restrictions, it’s faster and more reliable to source parts locally. So a company has to go to a domestic machine shop or 3D-printing shop—most of which are smaller operations not used to handling large orders—to ask for copies of these parts, Cusumano said.

Then it has to find a way to scale that up to make thousands of units per month—a difficult task, according to Robert Bordley, a professor of systems engineering and design at the University of Michigan. “The big issue is ramping up production in all the different parts suppliers,” Bordley said. He pointed out that this would have been easier when GM owned most of its supply chain. “But those times are past,” he said. Cusumano finds it reassuring that China’s factories are reopening as officials relax restrictions, since almost any part can be sourced from China. But it’s still risky to depend on international manufacturers right now, especially for health care supplies that have urgent, worldwide demand.

Retrofitting the plants is another hurdle. Ford and GM both announced plans to build ventilators at factories that manufacture smaller automobile components, which makes them more amenable to ventilator production. The carmakers might even be able to repurpose some existing parts, such as circuit boards, switches, and pumps, said Cusumano. Still, building ventilators is “more of a manual process” than the plants’ mass production lines, explained Bordley, who has worked as a technical fellow at GM. The companies will have to figure out how to set up new assembly lines and basic training for employees, said Cusumano. The automakers will likely bring engineers from existing ventilator companies they’ve partnered with to learn how to streamline that process. But scaling is still an issue: Ventec Life Systems, which is partnering with GM, makes only about 200 machines per month, and GM says it hopes to ramp up to at least 10,000 per month.

Ideally, the ventilators will also be tailored to the COVID-19 crisis, which means they’ll look slightly different from the preexisting ones. The new ventilators don’t necessarily have to last as long, said Bordley, but they should be more user-friendly, since they will be used by health care providers who might not be as familiar with them.

There’s also the matter of cost. “To my mind, that’s the big thing GM is contributing,” said Bordley. The estimated bill for GM to retool just one facility in Kokomo, Indiana, is several hundred million dollars, and it’s still unclear who’s paying for it. The White House and the Federal Emergency Management Agency haven’t committed to funding the conversion—they apparently balked at the price tag—and although GM has said it’s contributing its resources “at cost,” the company hasn’t reported whether it will be absorbing the conversion balance if the government fails to help. As Bordley mentioned, car companies have struggled in the past and don’t exactly have large reserves. “I’m cognizant, of course, of the Great Recession that happened, and what that did to GM and Ford,” he said. While Bordley believes it’s necessary for these automakers to produce ventilators, he said that he’s worried about the expense of retooling factories that will only be temporarily useful and how that might lead to restructuring and layoffs. “Ultimately, [the funding] is going to have to come out of something,” he said.

The good news, as Cusumano puts it, is that “it’s not rocket science.” There’s no denying that ramping up production of ventilators will be difficult. But Cusumano is confident that the automakers will be able to churn out thousands of the machines in anywhere from six weeks to two months from now. As he pointed out, the auto companies transferred their manufacturing capabilities from civilian vehicles to tanks and military vehicles to help out the country during World War II. “It’s been done before,” he said.