Can Our Shuttered Auto Plants Make Ventilators for Coronavirus Patients? And Will the Government Let Them?

GM’s CEO is offering to help. She shouldn't wait for the feds to figure out what to do.


Can GM and Ford convert their shuttering auto plants into ventilator factories—and can they do it in enough time to make a difference fighting the coronavirus? We may find out.

We have a shortage of beds and equipment in American hospitals, and those who have read the reporting of Reason's Eric Boehm over the years know one big reason why: Government regulations, heavily influenced by hospitals trying to stop competitors, restrict hospitals' ability to add more capacity via "Certificate of Need" laws. Now the spread of the coronavirus threatens to outpace the number of hospital beds and ventilators that America has available.

On Wednesday, Ford, GM, and Fiat all announced together they were closing their auto plants until at least the end of March. Now GM CEO Mary Barra has reportedly told the White House that her company might be able to use its excess factory space to build more ventilators. Bloomberg reports that Barra is already in talks to figure out how this might be done.

My advice to Barra (not that she needs it): Don't wait for the federal government to get its act together. The CEO of Ventec Life Systems, Chris Kiple, told NPR yesterday that his company intends to ramp up production of ventilators fivefold but it will take about 90 days. The interview makes it clear that the process of procuring parts and building ventilators is not a simple one. Waiting for a federal government that has been dithering and obstructive in its responses will simply add unnecessary steps and increase the amount of time it will take for GM to transition. Even now, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at the Centers of Disease Control is saying it will take at least 45 to 90 days to approve a new production facility to manufacture more masks.

Assuming, that is, that GM's help is actually needed. Don't take this article as a screed yelling for GM to get to work making ventilators for America. But if the company is better positioned to work directly with hospitals, evaluate the demand, connect to supply chains, and draw in the appropriate talent, it should be free to do so.

Some coverage of these possible manufacturing shifts compares them to the military efforts in World War II to help build Jeeps and tanks. Let's resist that comparison. The federal government is supposed to oversee war efforts and call the shots on what equipment is needed based on its own military strategies and goals. This, by contrast, is a civilian public health crisis that relies heavily on analysis and expertise from the private medical sector. In the United States, federal bureaucracies have been sluggish in testing and in evaluating needs, and thus have contributed to the spread of the coronavirus.

The feds may be able to contribute with money and other resources. But let's not have GM (and other companies) sitting on their hands waiting for the White House to decide what to do. America has plenty of skilled leaders. They don't need to wait for permission.

NEXT: Health Bureaucrats Botched the Response to Coronavirus. Trump Made It Even Worse.

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  1. “Even now, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at the Centers of Disease Control is saying it will take at least 45 to 90 days to approve a new production facility to manufacture more masks.”

    Fuckin’ OSHA within the CDC?! Like a bureaucrat Russian doll. Get the regs out of the way and get those factories working. Easy way for Trump to garner some goodwill and potentially save lives and jobs.

    1. Not listen to OHSA?! Why, do you want factory workers to die?!

      Not that I disagree that OHSA can be onerous, short sighted, and is generally a drag on industry. I’d be curious to find out if you’re also in favor of off-shore oil platforms ignoring OHSA, though, or if you’re just in favor of the government ignoring it’s own regulations.

      I’d guess during the BP spill you’d have said something entirely different about OHSA regulation. So would most everyone else, so you’re probably not alone in your inconsistency.

      The government is a nesting doll of regulation, but it’s also pretty true that government has no interest in regulating itself.

      1. I’ve had to deal with OSHA and other safety regulators quite a bit. My company makes chemical manufacturing equipment for use with flammable solvents. Prior to this venture, I consulted for companies building facilities for processing plant extracts with flammable solvents. I had one client have a major employee incident that resulted in very serious burns. They ignored the hiring and training requirements and put an unqualified person in the position of lab tech, in a lab that contained various flammable solvents and instruments to heat those solvents. They should have followed the OSHA-compliant hiring and training program we had established for them.

        I follow fire codes even when I know I’m not going to be inspected. I take extra precautions that are not explicitly required when I identify a unique risk. I am not saying that all OSHA action is good or bad.

        Like many regulatory agencies, some of what they do is good and some of the regulations are sound and save lives. Other regulations are burdensome and do not save lives.

        Sometimes individual regulators will become an obstacle to progress just to feel that little rush one gets when one has arbitrary power over someone else.

        1. Of course, it seems like NIOSH isn’t the same organization which is interesting. It seems we both conflated the two.

          1. It seems they are the research group which creates the data and analysis to create OSHA regs with. Their mission statement page says they are a research group, but apparently they are advising people on how long it will take to get their factories reg compliant.

            1. I just failed at reading the article. NIOSH regulates all kinds of things, although I believe it’s almost entirely related to healthcare and medical devices. If they regulate anything else, I haven’t run into it before. Not that hospitals aren’t also regulated by OSHA. It is indeed a shit show.

  2. They can’t even make cars properly. Leave it to them you’ll get two toned ventilators with vinyl tops, fins and 2 miles to the breath.

    1. Just make the ventilators in the truck side of the factory.

    2. Hey they may still have some wood panels left. America is the land of choices – two-tone or wood paneled

  3. Last I checked the factory equipment to make a car can’t just be told to make something else like a ventilator. These are not Star Trek replicators, after all. Hell, they aren’t even 3D printers.

    So really, what we’re talking about is using the same building but buying entirely new fabrication equipment. Right? How many robot arm welders do you need to make a face mask, exactly?

    1. I assume these auto-makers are floating these ideas as a scheme to get more ‘stimulus’ cash more than anything. Yeah, they’ll be happy to buy all new equipment and make face masks as long as the Fed is the one buying all the equipment then paying them for the product.

      Because lets be honest. The cash they can probably get from the market for these items might be high now, but by the time they can get everything up and running they’ll probably lose money. Hence the government cash, which everyone is more than happy to waste.

    2. My guess: Think less the body work and more the fuel/ignition/air systems in the car.

      Pipes and nozzles.

      That said if you want WW2 style production there would have to be a lot of hard tooling investments.

      But yeah the upfront work is going to be a pain in the ass.

      1. No edit button so: They probably can’t make the entire ventilators, but I suspect they could re-purpose to help make some of the parts for them, expanding the supply chains for them.

        If you want Detroit to churn them out, that’s going to require a lot more than just flexibility.

  4. On Wednesday, Ford, GM, and Fiat all announced together they were closing their auto plants until at least the end of March.

    Let’s see- it’s March 19th today. How many days to re-tool an auto manufacturing plant into a ventilator plant and back again to making cars?

    So- not the end of March, then?

    1. As an engineer who works with industry…no, not end of March. You might get a preliminary proposal by the end of March.

      1. You’d probably just barely manage to schedule the pre-meeting in the next 10 days.

    2. They would be lucky to propose the potential composition of the committee to determine the composition of the committee to investigate the possibility by the end of March.
      Not to mention waiting for the HR department to approve the mix of races and (real or assumed) genders on each of the committees.

  5. Now GM CEO Mary Barra has reportedly told the White House that her company might be able to use its excess factory space to build more ventilators.

    Have fun replacing them in four years when they rust out as planned.

  6. You can’t use those ventilators, they haven’t been crash tested!!

    /NHTSA Bureaucrat.

  7. Like the UAW is going to let them.

    1. You use a scab ventilator, and coronavirus will be the least of your problems, buddy!

  8. How tone-deaf must one be to figure that anti-government rants are likely to be persuasive in current conditions?

    About as tone-deaf as one must be to sense that Pres. Trump had performed adequately (let alone well) when tested in this manner.

    Carry on, clingers. Your march toward political and cultural irrelevance is advancing nicely.

    1. Not at all since it was clearly the Chinese government that botched containment and the US government that botched testing.

    2. So, we shouldn’t be anti-government, we should be supportive of government, but Trump’s administration – ie, the government – has screwed everything up?

      Is this memes?

  9. Of course, if Hillary had been elected President, coronavirus would have magically stopped at the U.S. border, say those with TDS.

    1. The coronavirus would still be stored on the server in her bathroom.

    2. The quickest way to destroy the virus is to convince Hillary that it might testify against her.

  10. It’ll be over in 90 days.

  11. What the fuck is with Reason and it’s willful blindness to soft socialism?

    I certainly agree this isn’t the screed that Scott hedges against but you have to be pretty willfully naive to assume that Ford and GM shuttered the plants out of the goodness of their hearts or because they got tired of making cars and aren’t looking for a way to cover costs of days or weeks of non-productivity.

    Ford and GM closed their plants because governors closing businesses around the country and talk of $1000 handouts have handicapped them. They aren’t looking to contribute to the supply chain out of a sense of decency, they’ve got supply chain managers sitting on their asses at home drawing a pay check and no products in the chain to manage.

    1. They closed their plants because the union was freaking out.

      Which is just another way of saying the government forced them to close.

      1. So no, Barra doesn’t realistically expect to re-tool plants to make ventilators – not when there is nobody willing or able to work the production line even if they could do it (which they really cannot.)

        What she is doing is getting in line for the Federal gravy train to help offset their pending losses.

        1. Oh, and they are not blind to soft socialism, they are attracted to it.

          Reason’s idea of liberty is kinder, gentler statism.

  12. Can Our Shuttered Auto Plants Make Ventilators for Coronavirus Patients?

    That’s an easy one to answer, yes – in 6 to 9 months after a shitton of money is spent redesigning and rebuilding the factory lines and retraining everyone. In 6-9 months, if there are no hiccups and everyone involved knows what the hell they’re doing, you can get the old equipment out of the way, the new equipment in place, arrange upstream suppliers and find some distributors (and arrange transport).

    Realistically though? They could just about manage to get the first box on the truck right about when the last surviving patient no longer needs the support.

    1. What will really happen is that these companies will suck down tens, hundreds of millions of dollars during this event while producing nothing.

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  14. Building ventilators…. some of those regulations… ok MOST of those regulations are probably overly cumbersome, to keep competition away, and ensure bureaucrats keep their jobs. However ventilators are life support equipment. That means before the hospital will even think of plugging them in they must know they will not pop a circuit breaker and shut off other life support equipment. They also have to be certified that they are made correctly so that they don’t stop working, and if they do have a fault that someone is well aware of the fault before the patient flat lines. While I don’t expect auto makers to reinvent the wheel, leave that to the government, even assembly must be done to exacting standards, and for some parts in a sterile environment.

    While Ventilators are probably not something we want a auto manufacturer seeing if it can manage to build in an emergency, there are probably things they may be able to help with.

    Hospital beds will likely be in short supply if this gets bad enough, and while retooling is likely still an issue for some pieces, it is not an issue for assembly, and some automotive suppliers may be able to easily supply the parts that these plants can’t easily produce. So while Ventilators, are probably a big NO and will get a justifies cease and desist if they try to. However, looking at slightly less critically correct items might get them a round of thanks and the bureaucrats, told to let them work.

    1. Beds shouldn’t be a big deal. Plenty of mattress stores around that have them in stock. Good enough for emergencies.

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