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Inside GM’s race to build ventilators

On Monday, President Donald Trump on ordered General Motors to manufacture critical care ventilators as the United States grapples with the mounting number of coronavirus cases.
On Monday, President Donald Trump on ordered General Motors to manufacture critical care ventilators as the United States grapples with the mounting number of coronavirus cases.JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images

While much of the US economy has ground to a halt because of the coronavirus outbreak, several dozen workers in orange vests and hard hats were hauling heavy equipment Sunday at a General Motors plant in Kokomo, Ind.

The crew was part of a crash effort to make tens of thousands of ventilators, the lifesaving machines that keep critically ill patients breathing. The machines are in desperate demand as hospitals face the prospect of dire shortages. New York state alone may need 30,000 or more.

President Trump on Friday accused GM and its chief executive, Mary T. Barra, of dragging their feet on the project and directed his administration to force the company to make ventilators under a 1950s law. But accounts from five people with knowledge of the automaker’s plans depict an attempt by GM and its partner, Ventec Life Systems, a small maker of ventilators, to accelerate production of the devices.

With deaths surging as cases snowball, the two companies have moved urgently to find parts, place orders, and deploy workers, the people said. Tasks that normally would take weeks or months have been completed in days. The companies expect production to begin in three weeks and the first ventilators to ship before the end of April.

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On March 19, GM began collaborating with Ventec, which normally makes about 200 machines a month, to figure out how to make about 10 times as many in that time. Working through the weekend of March 21-22, they hurried to find new suppliers that could provide parts in high volumes, said the five people, who asked not to be named because they fear it would further antagonize Trump.

Over the weekend, GM called in workers to clear out the Kokomo plant, which has been idled because of the outbreak, of machinery previously used to make electrical components for cars. Over the next few days, the automaker and Ventec plan to begin setting up an assembly line. GM is already taking applications for the hundreds of jobs.

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“We continue to work around the clock on our efforts with Ventec,” GM said in a statement Sunday night. “We are working as fast as we can to begin production in Kokomo.”

“I’m pretty amazed at what they’ve done,” said Kristin Dziczek, vice president for industry and economics at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. “But automotive production involves a massive supply chain, and GM has risen to the occasion on other big manufacturing challenges.”

Trump does not see it that way. On Friday, he said on Twitter that Barra and GM had promised to provide 40,000 ventilators “very quickly” but was now telling the administration that it could produce only 6,000 by late April and wanted “top dollar” for the machines. “Always a mess with Mary B,” he said.

GM wasn’t negotiating price and other details with the government. Ventec has led the talks with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services about how many ventilators the government would like to buy, and at what price. The automaker has said it will not make a profit on the ventilators it assembles and is only seeking to cover its costs.

GM’s involvement in ventilators began with a phone call asking for help.

This month, Barra was contacted by a representative of Stop the Spread, a nonprofit campaign started by Rachel Romer Carlson, chief executive of Guild Education, and Kenneth I. Chenault, chairman and managing director at venture capital firm General Catalyst and a former chief executive and chairman of American Express, four people familiar with the discussion said.

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The two wrote an opinion essay on March 18 in The New York Times calling on corporate executives to join the fight against the pandemic. Some 1,500 corporate executives have signed a letter pledging to help in response to their plea.

The four people familiar with the call said that Barra offered to help and the representative from Stop the Spread suggested the company ought to use its manufacturing and purchasing might to help Ventec scale up ventilator production.

Ventec isn’t a giant in the ventilator industry, but it is known for its VOCSN model, which received FDA approval in 2017. The VOCSN, which is the size of a large toaster oven, combines a number of functions that had previously been performed by several machines to pump air into the lungs, suction out secretions and produce oxygen when a central oxygen line is not available. The device is used in critical-care hospital units but also can be used for home care.

When Trump lashed out at GM on Friday, executives at both companies were stunned. GM executives were furious Trump would attack the company after it had made so much progress in a week and the administration had earlier been supportive of their effort.

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“What we’ve accomplished in five days is incredible,” Larryson Foltran, who works in a technology support group at GM, wrote on Facebook, noting he had been working 14 to 18 hours a day. He said that the president’s posts had bothered him “on a deeper level.”