Over the past several weeks, the legendary descriptor, “arsenal of democracy” has been frequently invoked as America and the world battle to contain the impact of a coronavirus pandemic. Among other industries, automakers were quick to commit their support to this global health crisis. However, certain people have been critical that the auto industry wasn’t moving quickly enough. While it could certainly be argued that no actions right now are fast enough, in the context of the shift in the early years of World War II, the industry is actually moving much faster.
Even before many states including Michigan issued shelter-in-place orders, automakers joined most Silicon Valley companies in telling all employees that could work from home to do so, barring outside visitors to facilities and stopping all travel. Unfortunately, they were less quick to shut down manufacturing facilities which put many hourly employees at risk, but they ultimately did that as well.
GM and Ford among others also announced plans to leverage their supply chain and purchasing capabilities to help manufacturing of much needed medical equipment such as masks and ventilators to ramp up production.
However, it seems that there are some in positions of power that remain critical that they aren’t doing enough. It seems that they don’t actually know the history of how things went in the early-1940s. The common belief is that when the decision was made to support the war effort, car factories simply flipped a switch and started producing weapons. The reality is quite different.
Most American car factories didn’t suspend production of vehicles until after the U.S. officially entered the war in December 1941. Even then the transition took many months. The legendary Willow Run bomber plant in Ypsilanti, Mich. is often held up as the icon of the arsenal of democracy with its mile long assembly line that eventually churned out one B-24 Liberator every hour, seven days a week.
The Willow Run plant was actually purpose-built as an aircraft factory and didn’t produce vehicles and components until after the war. Initial construction at Willow Run began in 1940 and the first B-24s didn’t roll out until September 1942 and the maximum production rate wasn’t achieved until 1944.
By contrast, Ford began deliveries of face shields for medical personnel by March 24 and GM expects to deliver its first 20,000 face masks by April 6. Both automakers are also working with existing manufacturers of respirators and ventilators including 3M, GE and Ventec to rapidly produce more of that equipment.
The challenge is that you can’t simply take a vehicle assembly line and use it to make medical equipment. Assembly lines are highly specialized pieces of hardware that take months to build, assemble and install. They are designed to weld and paint bodies, install engines, mount instrument panels and doors and much more. There is very little that can be repurposed quickly.
Instead, they are working with suppliers that can more readily adapt to produce many of the smaller components, and especially plastic parts and figuring out how existing components can be adapted. For example, Ford is using the fans that normally power ventilated seats in F-150 pickups to blow air through respirator hoods for emergency workers.
Ford is also setting up space at its Rawsonville parts plant in Michigan to assemble ventilators based on a design from Airon Healthcare. The Rawsonville plant normally produces hybrid battery packs, oil pumps and many other components. It’s also just six miles from Willow Run. Production is scheduled to start by April 20 and Ford is planning to build up to 50,000 ventilators in three months based on demand.
Meanwhile, GM is already in the process of setting up space at a plant in Kokomo, Indiana to assemble ventilators based on a design from Ventec. Staff from Ventec and GM purchasing, manufacturing, engineering and legal have been working for the past two weeks to line up supplies of the 700 individual components that go into these ventilators with the goal of building up to 200,000 units starting in April.
Given the current crisis and the rapid increase in confirmed cases of Covid-19 across the U.S. and the world, no amount of speed in building this equipment will be enough to prevent tens and probably hundreds of thousands of fatalities in the coming months. However, that shouldn’t take credit these and many other companies for the efforts they are making in a remarkably short period.