Ford Motor Co. sent teams of engineers this week to consult with counterparts at 3M and General Electric to ramp up production of 3M respirators, GE ventilators and new 3-D-printed face shields, the companies announced Tuesday. Health-care workers and covid-19 patients desperately need the products as cases of the coronavirus multiply across the country.
Equipment shortages left many medical professionals working with substandard protective gear, raising concerns doctors will be forced to ration care and potentially lifesaving technologies as cases surge.
Businesses large and small have recalibrated as the public health and economic crises have raged, moving outside their lanes to produce new products or partner with other businesses to fill supply chain and product holes. Though corporate partnerships can concentrate expertise to solve some problems, many of these efforts are nascent and require different production and supply chain mechanisms, and skilled workers.
In the Ford collaboration, for instance, the first ventilators or respirators to roll off the line are months away. But the automaker pivoted quickly on the plastic face shields and expects to deliver the first batch of 1,000 this week to Detroit Mercy, Henry Ford Health Systems and Detroit Medical Center Sinai-Grace hospitals for testing. Eventually, it expects to produce 100,000 a week.
“This is like bringing in the cavalry to say, ‘Okay, where can we double down to make things go faster and bigger?’” Mike Kesti, global technical director of 3M’s personal safety division, said in a phone interview.
Ford and partners will repurpose fans used to cool seats in F-150 pickups, portable tool battery packs and 3M high-efficiency particulate air filters to make powered air purifying respirators, or PAPRs, used to protect health-care workers. The company also said it will work with GE on a design and production process for “a simplified version of GE Healthcare’s existing ventilator design.”
It also expects to use car parts to make respirator masks and is working on a “simplified version” of ventilator machines.
The companies do not have a timeline for scaling up production, and any expanded manufacturing processes would still have to clear regulatory hurdles, Kesti said.
Officials from nearly every level of government have called on businesses to aid in the fight against the outbreak. President Trump raised the possibility of using the Cold War-era Defense Production Act to compel the private sector to step up the manufacturing of medical equipment.
Acting FEMA administrator Peter T. Gaynor said Tuesday the administration planned to implement the law later that day to expand production of test kits and personal protective masks.
Some companies adjusted their operations voluntarily. Baltimore-based Marlin Steel, which specializes in metal containers for the likes of Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce, received an emergency order Friday night from a giant health-care provider. The client wanted test tube racks, a product Marlin had never made.
Majority owner and president Drew Greenblatt said he asked for volunteers to work into the night and all day Saturday, and that they were able to get the order on a truck Sunday so it would reach the client early Monday.
Trump tweeted Sunday that Tesla and General Motors “are being given the go ahead to make ventilators and other metal products, FAST!”
The British government has asked Rolls-Royce, Jaguar and vacuum-maker Dyson to contribute their manufacturing might to build ventilators. In France, luxury-goods firm LVHM converted its fragrance and cosmetics production lines to make hand sanitizer. Foxconn, Apple’s manufacturing partner in China, took a newly opened iPhone factory offline last month to produce face masks.
“It’s a new paradigm, and we’re only four or five days into it, but I have been impressed really with the altruistic motive and intent for everyone to help,” Kesti said. “I am optimistic that we will build a corporate-based covid business coalition, but we are early in this journey, and it’s an unprecedented journey.”
Ford’s push to team up with other companies was employee-led, Jim Baumbick, the company’s vice president of enterprise product line management, said in a phone interview.
“It was inspired by a group of employees getting together, talking about, back in the world wars, the ‘arsenal of democracy,’ the way Ford’s always kind of pulled together to kind of help in a time of need, and what could we do?” he said.
Internally, Ford launched “Project Apollo” — named for the first NASA moon missions — to find automotive parts that could be joined with components from medical device manufacturers.
It began conversations with 3M on Thursday after conversations with White House officials, Kesti said. Executives from both companies spoke by phone Friday. By Saturday, teams of engineers were exchanging ideas.
The three companies are working to scale up production first at GE and 3M facilities, but Ford is preparing its nonautomotive plants to handle surges in demand or to become a backup primary site.
Staff writer Thomas Heath contributed to this report.