Detroit Auto Makers Near Finish Line in Ventilator Push

Ventilator production in April at a GM factory in Indiana. The company and its partner are on track to complete 30,000 of the devices by the end of the month.

Photo: Chris Bergin/Reuters

Detroit’s two largest auto makers are nearing completion of federal contracts to manufacture tens of thousands of ventilators, capping a frenzied effort begun in the spring to mass-produce the breathing machines for the sickest Covid-19 patients.

Ford Motor F 0.14% Co. by late next week will have made about 43,000 ventilators with its partner, General Electric Co., GE 0.91% at a factory in suburban Detroit, a Ford spokeswoman said Friday. The companies expect to reach 50,000 by the end of August to fulfill a $336 million contract with the Department of Health and Human Services, she said.

General Motors Co. GM 1.13% is on track to complete 30,000 ventilators at a converted Indiana factory by the end of the month, fulfilling its terms under a $490 million federal contract with its partner, the Seattle-area medical-device maker Ventec Life Systems, a GM spokesman said.

GM plans to turn over operations at the factory to Ventec for future production, citing a continued need for ventilators beyond the federal contract.

Ford declined to comment on what will happen with the facility producing its ventilators once work under the contract is complete.

Completion of the work by GM and Ford would conclude an unusual and high-profile push by the car companies to apply an assembly-line approach to mass-produce breathing machines that normally are hand-built in the dozens a week.

GM signed its federal contract after President Trump invoked this spring the Defense Production Act, a Cold War-era law he used to order companies to manufacture devices and medication to fight Covid-19. He had criticized GM and Chief Executive Mary Barra for wasting time in negotiations with federal officials over ventilator production.

A Ford team at work in Michigan. The company and GE expect to complete 50,000 ventilators by the end of August.

Photo: Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

At the time of Trump’s criticism, GM was working to prepare ventilator production. The same week it shut down U.S. factories as Covid-19 cases surged, GM joined with Ventec and scoured the auto maker’s chain of thousands of suppliers to duplicate parts from Ventec’s ventilator and make them on a large scale.

Ford worked with GE to produce a ventilator with a design that operates on air pressure rather than electricity. The design was developed by Airon Corp., a small Florida medical-device maker. Ford and GE originally said they expected to reach 50,000 ventilators in July.

Ventilators mechanically pump air into the lungs of patients who can’t breathe on their own, a situation common in the worst Covid-19 cases. The devices are made with hundreds of parts, including valves, blowers, tubes, electronics and software, which regulate how much oxygen reaches the lungs and with how much air pressure.

The auto makers said they stepped in because they wanted to apply their manufacturing expertise in a moment of national crisis. Mr. Trump visited Ford’s ventilator operation at the suburban Detroit factory in May.

This spring the federal government signed contracts with several manufacturers for more than $2.9 billion to produce at least 187,000 new ventilators by year-end for the U.S.’s strategic national stockpile. The machines are being delivered to the Department of Health and Human Services, which distributes them as needed, the department has said.

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While the GM-Ventec machines are being delivered to the federal government, Ventec strategy chief Chris Brooks said he expects some hospitals to purchase ventilators on their own to prepare for potential localized surges in Covid-19 cases.

“We’ve seen critical-care ventilators continue to support patients as they fight Covid-19, and that will be needed until there is a vaccine,” Mr. Brooks said.

Write to Mike Colias at [email protected]

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