By Manas Mishra and Ben Klayman
(Reuters) – Carmaker Ford Motor Co <F.N> on Tuesday jumped into the emergency push by major U.S. manufacturers to produce thousands of ventilators and respirators needed to help combat the spread of the coronavirus under a partnership code-named “Project Apollo.”
By joining forces with General Electric’s <GE.N> healthcare unit and 3M Co <MMM.N>, Ford is taking heed of U.S. President Donald Trump’s call for U.S. automakers to work across sectors in producing equipment needed for the pandemic.
The rapid outbreak, which has killed more than 16,500 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.
Ford said its partnerships were code-named “Project Apollo” after the Apollo 13 launch in 1970 when a lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank failed two days into the mission, forcing the astronauts to improvise a fix.
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. In addition, they are developing a simplified design that Ford could begin making at one of its plants.
The plan is to get the new design approved quickly by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Tom Westrick, vice president and chief quality officer at GE Healthcare, said on a conference call.
Ford also is evaluating a separate effort not involving GE with the British government to make additional ventilators.
Hackett told CNN he believes the industry can produce “hundreds of thousands” of ventilators by early to mid-May. “There’s no higher sense of urgency.”
Ford on Tuesday extended the shutdown of its North American plants beyond March 30 as originally planned, but a spokesman said the healthcare-related efforts are separate and continuing.
Separately, Ford will work with 3M to increase manufacturing capacity of its air-purifying respirators by up to a factor of 10 to meet a surge in demand for first responders and healthcare workers, while also similarly developing a simplified design that Ford could build at one of its Michigan plants.
Under the simplified design, Ford is looking at using fans from its Ford F-150 pickup’s cooled seats to make parts of the respirators.
Additionally, Ford said its U.S. design team, working with the United Auto Workers union, 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. The company is targeting making more than 100,000 a week at non-vehicle manufacturing facilities in Michigan, including using 3D printers to help.
Ultimately, Ford officials want to create an open-sourced design that others can adopt and use to make their own shields.
“The teams are just getting scrappy. How do we use what we’ve got to get to something that’s capable and would meet regulatory requirements,” Jim Baumbick, the Ford vice president in charge of the automaker’s efforts, told Reuters.
On Monday, No. 1 U.S. automaker General Motors Co <GM.N> said it was partnering with medical equipment maker Ventec to build ventilators at GM’s parts plant in Indiana.
Meanwhile, Fiat Chrysler Automobile NV <FCHA.MI> <FCAU.N> told employees in an email that the Italian-American automaker would start converting one of its China plants to ultimately make over 1 million masks a month to help combat the coronavirus outbreak.
(Reporting by Manas Mishra in Bengaluru and Ben Klayman in Detroit; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty)