Instead of focusing on going from here to there, the auto industry in 2020 stopped to focus on the here and now.
As COVID-19 swept across the globe, OEMs and their suppliers found themselves in precarious positions. Demand for their products plummeted with the implementation of stay-at-home orders designed to keep communities safe and prevent stresses on health care systems.
And as the world fought back against the novel coronavirus, cars and carburetors just were not in demand.
But medical supplies were.
So the auto industry did exactly what it had to do: It shifted gears. It took its resources, materials and know-how and made the medical devices and equipment needed. Within weeks, vehicle makers became ventilator makers and auto parts suppliers turned into personal protective equipment manufacturers. Unlikely alliances were forged and partnerships were solidified, all in an effort to ensure that the lives were saved.
Ford teamed up with 3M Co., combining the automaker's air conditioning expertise with the medical device manufacturer's insights to produce powered air-purifying respirators at the height of demand.
Within a matter of 40 days, Ford transitioned its aims, realigned its automotive supply chain and began producing PAPRs instead of cars.
"Ford could not stand by while health care workers in this country placed their lives on the line to help others without even having proper protection," Jim Baumbick, vice president of Ford Enterprise Product Line Management, said in May. "That's why we kicked off an all-out sprint to protect those who are so selflessly helping patients afflicted with this terrible virus."
More than 90 paid United Auto Workers union members volunteered to make the PAPRs at Ford's Flat Rock, Mich., facility. By May 6, more than 10,000 respirators had been assembled and a goal of 100,000 units remained in focus.
At the same time Ford revved up production of medical devices, General Motors Co. forged a similar path.
Through a partnership with Ventec Life Systems, GM took the lead in an effort to mass-produce ventilators just when the country was experiencing a critical shortage of the machines. The partnership with GM allowed Ventec to quickly scale-up ventilator production, increasing output of the medical devices by 80 times, according to a GM statement.
"Our drive to put critical care ventilators into production was fueled by thousands of people at GM, Ventec and our suppliers, who all wanted to do their part to help save lives during the pandemic," Mary Barra, GM chairman and CEO, said in a statement. "It was inspiring to see so many people achieve so much so quickly."
Together, the GM-Ventec team produced tens of thousands of ventilators, delivering the milestone 30,000th unit to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Sept. 1, according to the automaker.
With the Sept. 1 delivery, GM turned over operational control of medical device manufacturing to Ventec, which will continue to manufacture VOCSN multifunctional critical care ventilators at the GM site in Kokomo, Ind., as well as its home base of Bothell, Wash.
"Our hope continues to be that mitigation efforts stop the spread of this virus. Ventec Life Systems is committed to maintaining increased production capacity for as long as it is needed to ensure front-line health care workers have the tools necessary to save lives," Ventec Life Systems CEO Chris Kiple said in a statement when his company gained control of the Indiana site.
Ventec is a much smaller company than GM, and before the pandemic, it made just a small fraction of the output produced through the partnership this year. During the pandemic, output surged.
"Ventec's monthly production capacity increased 80 times across our Bothell, Wash., and Kokomo, Ind., production facilities, making Ventec one of the largest manufacturers of critical care ventilators in the world," Chris Brooks, chief strategy officer with Ventec, said. "Expanded production continues to support customers in their ongoing response to COVID-19. We will continue increased production of VOCSN to fulfill existing back orders and accommodate new orders."