COVID-19  has  created  a  sudden  dramatic  need  for  ventilators  in  the world’s healthcare  system.  Considering the  number  of  cases  arising  around  the  world,  current  ventilator  supply  is  simply  not  sufficient  to cover  the  number  of  predicted  cases.

It  has  been  suggested  that  automakers  could  step  in  and re-purpose their factories and supply chains to produce additional ventilators, but how realistic is that plan?

President  Trump claimed to  have  given the  go  ahead to Ford,  General  Motors  and Tesla  to  begin building ventilators, but none are in a position to do so and, even if they were, they would not require the President’s permission. However, OEMs may not be the best-placed companies in the automotive industry  to  manufacture  ventilators because  they  predominantly  focus  on  the  final  assembly  of vehicles  while  the  detailed  manufacture of  components  is typically  handled by  an  extensive  network of suppliers.

History reminds us that automakers have rapidly repurposed factories before – building tanks, planes and munitions during World War Two – but this lesson does not easily apply to COVID-19. Machines of war use similar  components  and production methods to vehicles,  but  ventilators  are  a  very  different discipline.  They  require  many  complex,  intricate  parts  with  few  similarities  to  anything  automakers currently assemble, and must be built in sterile facilities to prevent contamination.

That does not mean automakers cannot do anything to help, however. Their strengths may not be in the  manufacture  of  intricate,  sterile  components,  but  they  have skills in  managing  extensive  supply chains,  which  could  be  used  to  help  existing  ventilator  manufacturers  ramp  up  production.  General Motors  has  already  confirmed  that  it  is  working  with  Ventec  Life  Systems  to  aid  with  logistics, purchasing and manufacturing, but fell short of stating that it would make ventilators at its facilities.

Elsewhere, Ford has announced it will work with material supplier 3M and GE Healthcare to ramp up ventilator  production and  is using  its  3D printers  to  produce  disposable  respirators  for  healthcare workers. Tesla, BorgWarner and Magna have all also stated they are looking to help.

Nevertheless, it will take months for automakers to pivot to making ventilators. Other auto companies may  be better  placed  to step  up  to  the  challenge of producing  the  components.  Suppliers  and motorsport  companies  are  used  to  specialised  production  processes,  and  to  rapid  retooling  for different products. For example, British motorsport specialist Prodrive has said it is capable of making ventilator  components – it  has  clean  facilities  and  extensive  fabrication capabilities  thanks  to  its  day job of producing custom parts for motorsports. Formula 1 teams, that also handle a lot of specialised, low-volume fabrication, are also looking into offering their services to manufacture ventilators.