Automakers heed calls to retool operations for coronavirus fight

Ford, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler are jump-starting operations to manufacture ventilators, respirators and masks.

    A ventilator is repacked at the New York City Emergency Management warehouse to be shipped out for distribution as doctors ring the alarm that many more are desperately needed to support coronavirus patients with respiratory failure or difficulty breathing [Caitlin Ochs/Reuters]
    A ventilator is repacked at the New York City Emergency Management warehouse to be shipped out for distribution as doctors ring the alarm that many more are desperately needed to support coronavirus patients with respiratory failure or difficulty breathing [Caitlin Ochs/Reuters]

    Carmaker Ford Motor Co on Tuesday jumped into the emergency push by major United States manufacturers to produce thousands of ventilators and respirators needed for critically ill coronavirus patients.

    By joining forces with General Electric's healthcare unit and 3M Co, Ford is heeding US President Donald Trump's call for US automakers to work across sectors in producing equipment needed for the pandemic.

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    The rapid outbreak, which has killed more than 17,000 people globally, has strained healthcare systems around the world and led to a shortage of ventilators needed to treat patients suffering from the flu-like illness, which can lead to breathing difficulties and pneumonia in severe cases.

    "We've been in regular dialogue with federal, state and local officials to understand the areas of greatest needs," Ford Chief Executive Jim Hackett said, adding that the company's aim was to increase the supply of necessary medical equipment.

    Ford and GE Healthcare will expand the production of GE's ventilator design to support patients with respiratory failure or difficulty breathing caused by the pathogen, Ford said.

    Separately, Ford will work with 3M to increase manufacturing capacity of its air-purifying respirators to meet a surge in demand for first responders and healthcare workers.

    The company said it was exploring how it could produce these new respirators in one of its Michigan manufacturing plants and help 3M boost production tenfold. It would use fans from its Ford F150 cooled seats to make parts of the respirators, the company said.

    Additionally, Ford said its US design team was starting to test transparent full-face shields for first responders, which when paired with N95 respirator masks, could be an effective way of limiting exposure to the coronavirus.

    General Motors Co has also partnered with medical equipment maker Ventec and is building ventilators at its plant in Indiana.

    Meanwhile, Fiat Chrysler Automobile NV (FCA) told employees in an email that the Italian-American automaker would start converting one of its plants in China to ultimately make over one million masks a month to help combat the coronavirus outbreak. It said it will distribute them to emergency services in North America to help the fight against coronavirus.

    FCA, which is also trying to help produce badly needed respirators for patients in intensive care in Italy, is one of a number of large manufacturers adapting production lines to make products in desperately short supply.

    "Production capacity is being installed this week and the company will start manufacturing face masks in the coming weeks with initial distribution across the United States, Canada and Mexico," it said in a statement released late on Monday.

    The monthly output of one million masks will be donated to police, emergency medical staff, firefighters and workers in hospitals and health care clinics, the statement said.

    The decision to begin distribution of masks in North America rather than Italy, the company's other home country, underlines the difficult balance global companies are having to maintain as they weigh where to offer help in the emergency.

    Fiat's position as a historic pillar of Italian industry makes the issue of where to provide help sensitive, especially as Italy is the country worst-hit by the virus so far.

    Both FCA and its controlling shareholder Exor, the investment firm of Italy's Agnelli family, have offered significant assistance to efforts to handle the crisis in Italy, where almost 6,000 people have died.

    FCA and luxury automaker Ferrari, also controlled by Exor, are in talks with Siare, Italy's biggest respirator manufacturer, to help it double production of the life-saving machines.

    It said companies controlled by Exor bought 150 ventilators and other medical equipment abroad, provided vehicles for support of people in need and were in touch with Italian authorities to help them buy medical equipment and healthcare products abroad.

    As part of the process, an Exor spokesman said on Tuesday that the group had made an initial purchase of 250,000 face masks in China that would be distributed in Italy and were expected to arrive by the end of this week.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency