By on March 16, 2020


In times of crisis, companies have been known to turn on a dime to produce whatever’s most needed at a given moment. Detroit automakers churned out all manner of jeeps, armoured cars, and tank killers during World War 2, with American office supplier Remington Rand cranking out .45-calibre Colt 1911 pistols. The Singer sewing machine company made its own batch of 1911s during WWI.

The threat facing the globe right now is not militaristic in nature, but it does pose a clear danger to everyone. It also knows no borders. As the world (in many cases, belatedly) moves to counter the threat of COVID-19, UK automakers might be pressed into service making a different kind of product.

What saves COVID-19 victims? Ventilators — and there’s not nearly enough of them.

As seen in Italy, when existing health services are overrun by a surge of critical patients requiring ventilators, doctors must sometimes make the painful choice of deciding who lives and who dies. No country is immune from this risk, not even the smug types living north of the border. If this pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that vaunted public healthcare systems are overstretched and vulnerable, not a magic bullet that insulates all from harm.

But I digress.

As reported by Autocar, the UK may be on the cusp of seeing automakers operating within its borders turning their labor towards the production of ventilators, not cars. Reports suggest that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson may make the ask today. Ford, Honda, Rolls-Royce, and construction equipment manufacturer JCB are said to be the companies  waiting to be tapped.

Britain’s national health service says only 5,000 ventilators exist in the country — enough to handle a normal cold and flu season, but not a sweeping pandemic of which severe pneumonia is the most significant symptom. There’s no natural immunity to this disease, either. The UK now watches as COVID-19 cases creep up both in that country and those across the Channel.

Spokespersons from Ford, JCB, and Honda admit the companies have been contacted by the UK government, with discussions ongoing to figure out how best to accommodate the building of ventilators.

A statement from the Prime Minister’s Officer reads, “Preparing for the spread of the coronavirus outbreak is a national priority and we’re calling on the manufacturing industry and all those with relevant expertise who might be able to help to come together to help the country tackle this national crisis.”

“We need to step up production of vital equipment such as ventilators so that we can all help the most vulnerable, and we need businesses to come to us and help in this national effort.”

Whether or not the automakers move forward in plugging the ventilator gap, or whether such an operation is even feasible at all UK factories, remains to be seen.

[Image: Ford]

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22 Comments on “Report: UK Automakers to Switch to a More Useful Product...”

  • avatar

    What did the writer mean by ‘smug types North of the border’? Very odd statement.

  • avatar

    Serious comment: This makes a lot of sense.

    Speaking of risks to human health:
    – Is now a good time to bring up medical errors? (This analysis says perhaps the third-leading cause of death in U.S.):
    – The State of California reminds me (via printed label) that the brass grommets on my newest welding blanket constitute a health risk.

    Snarky automotive-related troll: Will Ford-produced ventilators be branded as “Mustang”?

  • avatar

    While this press release sounds good, and is all “Rah! Rah! For the great British empire!”, this seems like a futile effort. By the time this program is set up and running, I expect this pandemic to be on the downward side and those patients this equipment is expected to save will either be long dead, or well on the road to recovery.

    A respirator, I assume, is a specialty piece of equipment made to exacting specifications, and assembled in a sterile environment. I find it hard to believe that automotive workers or assembly space can be trained and prepared in a short enough time period to make any appreciable gains.

    That being said I’m sure not all is lost. CNC machines can be re-purposed to build required parts as long as suitable raw materials and tooling can be sourced. Existing respirator manufacturers can be put on mandatory overtime, perhaps a third shift staffed by experienced assemblers augmented by automotive temps. Automotive efficiency experts can be brought on board to expedite and streamline processes.

    In the end, this all might be for naught if the PCB and other electronic components are sourced from mainland China with no option for domestic supply.

    I would love to see them prove me wrong, but this seems like a boondoggle wrapped up in feel good intentions.

    • 0 avatar

      You are correct about the ventilators being specialty items. Current hospital ventilators come in several flavors with those used in the OR for anesthesia the most complex. Certainly all are some of the most sophisticated machines in a hospital and are highly regulated.

      All current ventilators have computer controlled pumps and valves along with sensors for monitoring gas amounts and concentrations. Every circuit, wire, valve and tube made to what for a better word I would say military grade specs. I imagine sourcing of parts for these devices is global.

      However, if allowed, a simple ventilator close to 1960-70s design could probably be rolled out fairly quickly. That type might serve patients with acute respiratory failure quite well.

      As we are learning with this epidemic, that in times of crisis, the best may at times be the enemy of the good. That includes building of temporary hospitals, virus test kits, medicines and medical supplies. One quickly runs into a case of diminishing returns for the expense and effort expended. In a wealthy society with lots of lead time that may not matter but at times it does.

      In some scenarios the effort to increase reliability from 98% to 99.5% may be greater than that needed to get from 70% to 98%.

      • 0 avatar

        The diagram halfway down this page gives some indication of the scope of work involved:

        • 0 avatar

          And here’s a [simpler] field-expedient version:

          • 0 avatar

            Thanks for the links. The First just gives a taste of how complex modern hospital ventilators are. The field-expedient models unfortunately look like they are only designed to work with tight fitting masks (similar to the ambu bag) and not work with intubated patients for multiple days. They are sort of a niche product and from the one link priced accordingly.

      • 0 avatar

        volvo, would an oxygen concentrator be useful for some patients?

  • avatar

    Vents by Lucas. oh boy. or are we past that?

  • avatar

    It is a real good opportunity to kill car as a mass consumption product once and for all. It will solve the climate change problem like charm. Never waste a good crisis!

    • 0 avatar

      Quite the opposite.

      During a pandemic, would you rather be in your own personal mode of transport, or sharing mass transit (or even a mobility solution)?

  • avatar

    ” smug types living north of the border.” Really?
    As a reader since the early days of Farago, I’ve seen many changes, and it’s just my personal opinion that this current group has this website circling the drain. Of course I won’t let the door smack me in the a$$ on my way out.

  • avatar

    Why wasn’t Tesla asked? They could price them as a luxury product, then call them a luxury product, and then build 20% that work right out of the factory only to have 80% sent back to another tent where the wonderful Tesla craftsmanship can be given a second chance to reach 20% again. Wash, rinse, and repeat.

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