On March 20, General Motors brought in an initial team to turn an empty 2.7 million-square-foot (250,838 square metre) factory into a mask making facility. Work started Monday and, by April 8, some 20,000 masks will be produced at the formally shuttered Warren Transmission plant in Metro Detroit. Once all the kinks have been worked out, the automaker could be producing up to 50,000 masks a day, 1.5 million a month and selling those masks at cost.
Despite criticisms occasionally lobbed by U.S. President Trump at the automaker, GM is moving fast in the face of the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis. From the Detroit Free Press:
The first people we called were those who work with fabric vehicle components,” said Karsten Garbe, GM plant director of Global Pre-Production Operations. “In a few days, the company’s seat belt and interior trim experts became experts in manufacturing face masks.”
More than 30 engineers, designers, buyers and members of GM’s manufacturing team helped develop the product and find the machinery and materials, such as metal nose pieces, elastic straps and blown, nonwoven fabric filter material, to make the masks. They also laid out a plan for the production process, Doran said.
Then they went to work “around the clock,” said Peter Thom, GM’s vice president of Global Manufacturing Engineering.
“Because we wanted to move fast, the team set an incredibly aggressive goal: To have the production line up and running tests within a week,” Thom said.
The plant where masks are being produced was among the facilities shuttered in 2018 during GM’s restructuring. GM’s surviving plants are currently shut down to help combat the spread of the disease, though the UAW is calling on “paid volunteers” who want to come in and help manufacture the masks.
Mask production is just the first step in GM’s answer to the COVID-19 outbreak. The automaker is also working with medical technology company Ventec Life Systems to build the much more complex ventilators used to keep the seriously ill breathing while the virus ravages their lungs. Talks between the two companies began March 20, according to the New York Times, with a goal of producing 20,000 ventilators a month. The two companies have already sourced the majority of parts needed from suppliers to build the lifesaving devices. Ventec is aiming to start ventilator production at GM’s Kokomo, Indiana, plant for delivery by mid-April.
All of these plans were being formed while the president continued to publicly doubt the massive need for revving up ventilator production, especially after New York Mayor Andrew Cuomo estimated that the city alone needed 30,000 ventilators
“I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators,” Trump said on Sean Hannity’s show on March 26. “You go into major hospitals sometimes, and they’ll have two ventilators.”
Trump blew hot and cold over GM’s response to the pandemic over the weekend, criticising and then praising the automaker’s response just days apart. On March 27, Trump was accusing GM of price gouging (even though price negotiations were being handled by Ventec), demanding GM re-open the already sold Lordstown GM plant for production and threatening to impose the Defence Production Act (which he later signed) in order to force the company to build the life saving equipment, all while GM was already well on its way to doing so. Trump focused his ire on former advisor on the economic advisory council (remember that?) and GM CEO Mary Barra:
As usual with “this” General Motors, things just never seem to work out. They said they were going to give us 40,000 much needed Ventilators, “very quickly”. Now they are saying it will only be 6000, in late April, and they want top dollar. Always a mess with Mary B. Invoke “P”.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 27, 2020
By Sunday, Trump had changed his tune.
“General Motors is doing a fantastic job,” Trump told reporters at a news conference Sunday. “I don’t think we have to worry about General Motors now.”
Despite the very public pressure put on GM by the president, as of mid-day yesterday, there were still no federal orders for masks or ventilators from the partnership between GM and Ventec, Time reports. Still, GM is going ahead with building the ventilators without any federal assurance of being paid back for switching factories from automotive production to ventilators and will be selling those ventilators and masks at-cost to whomever is looking to buy them.
I’m personally impressed with what GM has accomplished in such a short time. I doubted the speed with which GM could effectively produce masks and ventilators, and I’ve never been happier to be wrong. I can also respect that GM seems to be taking the same tact many of us have during this crisis: it’s better to just ignore the president and keep doing the right thing anyway.