GM Kokomo Operations to Build Ventec Life Systems Ventilators

Work being done Sunday at the General Motors manufacturing facility in Kokomo, Indiana, where GM and Ventec Life Systems are partnering to produce Ventec VOCSN critical care ventilators in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

General Motors said it could start hiring full-time temporary workers from the community to build ventilators at its Kokomo facility.

The company on Friday evening posted on Facebook that it was “looking to hire production members to assist our team’s immediate effort with the production” of ventilators in Kokomo.

The post came the same day that GM and Ventec, a small Seattle-area company that makes ventilators, announced they were bringing an estimated 1,000 workers back to the Kokomo plant to begin making ventilators, and could start shipping them out as soon as next month.

Dan Flores, GM’s senior manager of communications, said first dibs on the jobs will go to the current Kokomo workforce, which was furloughed on March 20 due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The company will then pull from the workforce at its stamping plant in Marion.

How many temporary employees GM hires from outside the Kokomo and Marion plants will depend on how many workers sign up to come back to build ventilators, Flores said.

“First pull will be from the current Kokomo workforce followed by the Marion workforce,” he said in an email. “If we still need more, we will hire from local Kokomo community.”

Stephanie Jentgen, a GM communications manager, said the company will hire temporary workers, but the question now is how many they will need.

“We just don’t know how many at this time as it depends on the number who return from layoff,” she said in an email.

People can start applying for temporary jobs now by visiting GM Career’s Facebook page and following the application link.

The hiring comes after Ventec and GM announced over a week ago they had been working around the clock to meet the urgent need for more ventilators.

Across all manufacturers, there is a global backorder of ventilators capable of supporting patients fighting COVID-19. Experts have said hundreds of thousands of new machines could be needed over the course of the pandemic. The United States currently has between 160,000 and 200,000 ventilators.

Efforts to set up tooling and manufacturing capacity at the GM Kokomo facility are already underway to produce Ventec’s critical-care ventilator, VOCSN, company officials said.

The companies say they are adding thousands of units of new capacity for the machines through its setup at the Kokomo plant, which will have a significantly expanded supply chain capable of supporting high-volume production. GM said it is donating its resources at cost.

Depending on the needs of the federal government, Ventec and GM said they are poised to deliver the first ventilators next month and ramp up to a manufacturing capacity of more than 10,000 ventilators per month, with the capability to scale further.

GM’s efforts have been greeted by both scorn and praise by President Donald Trump, who on Friday invoked the Defense Production Act to attempt to require the company to build ventilators after GM already announced it was doing just that.

A few days earlier, Trump had been holding up GM and Ford as examples of companies voluntarily responding to the outbreak without the need for him to invoke the act. Then on Friday, he slammed GM on Twitter and during his daily briefing for foot-dragging. On Sunday, he was back to praising the company during another briefing, saying “General Motors is doing a fantastic job. I don’t think we have to worry about them anymore.”

But GM says it had been proceeding on the same course all along.

The company got into the ventilator business on March 18 after being approached by stopthespread.org, a coalition of CEOs trying to organize companies to respond to the COVID-19 disease that has already claimed more than 30,000 lives globally. That organization introduced GM to Ventec.

The automaker pulled together manufacturing experts, engineers and purchasing specialists, and the next day had people at Ventec’s facility, a short distance from a nursing home where the virus killed at least 35 people.

They worked on speeding up Ventec’s manufacturing. A few days later, GM assigned more engineers and purchasing experts to figure out how it could make Ventec’s machines. Some Ventec parts makers couldn’t produce enough widgets fast enough, so GM went to its own parts bin to find suppliers to do the job, Johnson said. At the same time, GM was shutting down its car and truck factories temporarily due to worker fears about the virus.

Erik Gordon, a University of Michigan law and business professor, said he thought Trump would commend GM and use it as an example for other manufacturers in the coronavirus fight.

“What came out was a smack on the head,” he said.

Gordon, who teaches a class in commercialization of biomedical goods, said Trump likely will claim credit when GM starts making the machines. “This is an election year, and on all sides you’re going to see political theater,” he said.

Critics have urged Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act broadly to control the production, supply and distribution of ventilators and protective gear for hospital workers who are running short. That’s what the act was meant to do, and it was not for use against a single company, Gordon said.

Even with increased production from all ventilator makers, however, the U.S. might not have enough of the life-saving machines.

U.S. hospitals have about 65,000 of the ventilators that are sophisticated enough to treat critical coronavirus patients. It could probably cobble together a total of 170,000, including simpler devices, to help with the crisis, one expert says.

A doctor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center estimates that 960,000 people in the U.S. will need to be on ventilators, which feed oxygen into the lungs of patients with severe respiratory problems through a tube inserted down the throat. Doctors hope social distancing will stop a huge number of people from getting sick simultaneously, flattening the curve of the illness so they can use one ventilator to treat multiple patients.

Trump, in several appearances Friday, accused GM of promising 40,000 ventilators, then reducing the number to 6,000. He also said the company wanted higher prices than previously discussed.

Ventec, which is negotiating with the government to provide more ventilators, said it only changed numbers and prices at the request of government agencies, which asked for a range of quantities and prices. The company said it’s selling the ventilators, which can treat severe virus patients, at distributor cost, and it has offered scaled down versions for a lower price.

Up until late Sunday, Ventec and GM hadn’t known how many ventilators the government would buy but those details are now being worked out.

Ventec isn’t sure if it will make any money on the devices, which generally sell for $18,000 — far less than ventilators used in hospital intensive care units that can cost $50,000. Johnson says GM has no intention of making a profit.

Ventec will need government money to help pay parts suppliers and ramp up its own production from 200 per month to 1,000 or more, said CEO Chris Kiple.

Invoking the Defense Production Act “shined a light” on the need for ventilators, he said, but Ventec can’t move any quicker.

“We’re still moving full speed ahead,” Kiple said. “We know there’s a shortage of ventilators.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @carsongerber1.

Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @carsongerber1.

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Carson Gerber is a reporter for the Kokomo Tribune and can be reached at 765-854-6739, carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @carsongerber1.

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