31 mar 20

US carmakers race against time to build medical ventilators

It’s no easy task, given the complexity, intellectual property, regulatory approval and safety considerations.

As hospitals across the USA are being pushed to the limit by COVID-19, they are facing an acute shortage of ventilators to help the most affected hospitalised patients breathe. Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security says there are about 160,000 machines available, but as many as 740,000 could be needed.

The usual suppliers of these medical machines are faced with production capacity limitations and will never be able to build enough units to cope with demand. That is why president Trump has taken measures pushing car makers to be creative and lend the medical industry a helping hand. New partnerships between medical and automotive are being forged in a race against time to build as much ventilators as possible.

Ventilators costs between $20,000 and $50,000 a piece, depending on their features. They are complex machines that use advanced software and specialized parts. On top of that, carmakers are facing several obstacles: intellectual property rights, the need for specially trained workers, regulatory approvals and safety considerations, writes CNN.

The ventilators need to be operated by specialised staff, too, so even if the OEMs can build enough of them, they are still useless without skilled professionals.

Automotive meets medical

Last week, Ford announced it is teaming up with GE Healthcare to expand production of a simplified version of GE Healthcare’s existing ventilator design to support patients with respiratory failure or difficulty breathing. Yesterday, Ford added some concrete numbers: it will be building 50,000 ventilators over the next 100 days. After scaling up, the OEM could build 30,000 per month as needed.

The simplified ventilator doesn’t require electricity – just air pressure – and has been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration. It allegedly meets the needs of most COVID-19 patients. Ford plans to commence production at a plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, deploying 500 United Auto Workers employees, in the week of April 20. Experts expect that is when COVID-19 will peak in New York.

GM is readying the production of so-called VOCSN machines (for ventilator, oxygen, cough, suction and nebuliser) together with a partner company called Ventec Life Systems. The latter provides the knowhow, GM brings production capacity to the table by converting one of its parts plants into a medical production unit. The numbers are less impressive than Ford’s: GM says it can build up to 10,000 ventilators per month, but not before summer.  

Face masks and respirators

Respirators and personal protection equipment are also in short supply. Fortunately, they are less complicated to manufacture and could therefore reach hospitals a lot quicker.

Ford is working together with 3M to manufacture at scale Powered Air-Purifying Respirators (PAPRs), leveraging parts from both companies to meet urgent demand for first responders and health care workers. This new respirator could be produced in a Ford facility by UAW workers, the company said. In addition, Ford plans to assemble more than 100,000 face shields per week and leverage its in-house 3D printing capability to produce components for use in personal protective equipment.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles limits its efforts to manufacturing and donating more than 1 million protective face masks per month for now, starting in the coming weeks with initial distribution across the United States, Canada and Mexico. The face masks are to be donated by FCA to police, EMTs and firefighters, as well as to workers in hospitals and health care clinics.

As to the foreign OEMs with an industrial footprint in the USA, Toyota will be collaborating with medical device companies to speed the manufacture of ventilators, respirators and other vital devices for hospitals. “With our plants idled and our dealers focused on servicing customers, we are eager to contribute our expertise and know-how in order to help quickly bring to market the medical supplies and equipment needed to combat the COVID crisis. Our message to the medical equipment community is we are here to help, please utilize our expertise,” said Ted Ogawa, Toyota’s North American CEO.

Honda is deploying its 3D printers to manufacture visors for protective face shields that will be used by medical providers. "We continue investigating the ability to meet critical manufacturing needs related to medical equipment, including partnering with other companies," yesterday's press release reads.

The rest of the OEMs remain quiet about their medical relief programs.



Authored by: Dieter Quartier