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Factories pivot to fight coronavirus, but challenges abound

Many companies are exploring whether they are able to help produce needed items, including hand sanitizer and masks, that are in short supply now as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the globe.AFP via Getty Images

DETROIT — Factories that crank out cars and trucks are looking into making much-needed ventilators. Distilleries intended for whiskey and rum will instead turn out hand sanitizers and disinfectants. And an electronics maker that builds display screens is repurposed for surgical masks.

All are answering the call of duty amid a pandemic that has so far claimed more than 11,000 lives and sickened 260,000 people globally.

But redirecting plants to make completely different products will take a long time and a huge effort — possibly too long for some companies to help with medical gear shortages that are becoming more acute every day.

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“When you are repurposing a factory, it really depends on how similar the new product is to the existing products in your product line,” said Kaitlin Wowak, a professor at the University of Notre Dame who focuses on industrial supply chains. “It’s going to be a substantial pivot to start producing an entirely different item.”

On Friday, President Trump said he invoked the Korean War-era Defense Production Act, which allows the government to marshal the private sector to fight COVID-19. But he did not give examples as to how he was using it.

At a news conference Saturday, Trump singled out GM and Ford as among the many businesses that have asked to start making medical gear such as ventilators, the need for which he said has grown into the hundreds of thousands.

“Nobody’s ever heard of a thing like that. With that being said, General Motors, Ford, so many companies — I had three calls yesterday directly, without having to institute like ‘You will do this’ — these companies are making them right now,’’ Trump said.

Neither automaker, however, is building ventilators at present. GM announced Friday that it is working with ventilator maker Ventec Life Systems to ramp up production. The automaker said it would help with logistics, purchasing, and manufacturing, but stopped short of saying it would make ventilators in its own factories, which have been idled for two weeks after workers who’d been fearful of contagion put pressure on the company.

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Crosstown rival Ford, which also suspended factory production along with other automakers with operations in North America, confirmed that it too was in discussions with the administration about helping.

“We’re looking at feasibility,” Ford spokesman T.R. Reid said. “It may be possible, but it’s not you go from Rangers [small pickups] one day to ventilators the next.”

Ford and Rolls-Royce PLC also are working with the British government to see if they can switch over their factories.

Although the government can steer factories to overcome shortages, makers of heavy goods such as cars and trucks can’t just flip a switch and produce something else.

It would be difficult to get ventilator or even surgical mask designs, line up parts and supplies, and to train workers to make them in a short period, said Jorge Alvarado, a professor in the engineering technology and industrial distribution department at Texas A&M University. And auto plants generally aren’t clean enough to make medical equipment.

During World War II, automakers were more easily able to shift to making tanks and planes because they are close relatives to cars and trucks, Alvarado said. Auto factory equipment such as robots and assembly lines aren’t really compatible with smaller items such as ventilators, he said.

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Other industries may be better equipped to help with the virus. Rum producer Bacardi, for example, said its distillery in Puerto Rico has shifted to making ethanol needed to produce hand sanitizer. Small US distilleries such as Eight Oaks Farm in Pennsylvania are converting operations to make alcohol-based disinfectant. It will charge whatever people want to donate.

Electronics maker Sharp Corp. said it will start making surgical masks using a plant in central Japan that usually makes displays.