Assembly-line workers at America’s largest auto makers, ordered to turn their skills from vehicles to ventilators, must first master tweezers and tiny screwdrivers.

That is one of the many steps ahead in the race to convert car plants to medical-supply factories before the coronavirus pandemic reaches its peak in the U.S.

General Motors Co.

and

Ford Motor Co.

hope to head off a shortage of the lifesaving machines but have only weeks to deliver them.

At a Ford engineering facility in Dearborn, Mich., engineers plastered a conference-room wall with yellow sticky notes last week, mocking up a factory layout to produce the machines. Some only weeks ago had been immersed in the launch of the new Ford Bronco SUV.

At a GM plant in Kokomo, Ind., factory workers in surgical masks and latex gloves learned how to whittle together circuit boards and connect tiny tubes on test ventilators. Production there is scheduled to start this week.

The intricate machines typically are assembled at the rate of dozens a week. GM and Ford plan to produce 80,000 by late summer, more than the estimated total number now in U.S. hospitals.

Work under way at a General Motors facility in Kokomo, Ind., where GM and Ventec Life Systems are collaborating to produce ventilators.



Photo:

AJ Mast for General Motors

Even if the companies hit their targets, the ventilators may not come in time for hospitals to handle the patient surge in many hard-hit areas. “To produce a ventilator in two months doesn’t do anything for me,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a TV interview.

The switch from vehicles to ventilators requires more than a dash of American ingenuity. Cars and engines are built on assembly lines with power drills and robotic welding machines. Ventilators are made at workbenches with hand tools.

“You’ve got to bring 1,200 people up to speed on processes that they’ve not ever done before,” said Gerald Johnson, GM’s global manufacturing chief. Assembly-line workers took dexterity tests to make sure they were up to the job.

While sedans and ventilators are vastly different, auto makers are expert at marshaling supply chains and manufacturing parts and finished products to meet exacting specifications and safety regulations in mass volume.

GM on Wednesday got a $490 million first federal contract to deliver 30,000 ventilators by August for the national stockpile. The contract came nearly two weeks after President Trump criticized the company and invoked the Defense Production Act to press the auto maker to move faster. The company said it was already advancing on the project at the time.

The U.S. also signed a $647 million contract with Netherlands-based Royal Philips NV for delivery of 43,000 ventilators by the end of the year.

Ford is working with

General Electric Co.

to make 50,000 ventilators by early July. Together, the three manufacturers could meet the White House target of 100,000 new ventilators produced by summer. Ford and GE are in contract talks with the Trump administration.

Ford employees performed 3-D scans and parts analysis of the Airon ventilator to prepare for mass production.



Photo:

Ford

The wall at a Ford engineering facility in Dearborn, Mich., where engineers used sticky notes to mock up the layout of a ventilator production facility.



Photo:

Ford Motor Co.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

NV and

Toyota Motor Co.

also have initiated ventilator production plans, though GM and Ford are furthest along.

Forecasts of how many new ventilators are needed for Covid-19 patients vary widely. Neil Carpenter, who is working on Covid-19 response planning for health-care consultants Array Advisors, estimated around 25,000. More would be needed if there is a second wave of infection, he said.

“The number of people who might get sick is very unpredictable,” Mr. Carpenter said. “The production of ventilators is one of the few variables we can control.”

Ford isn’t worried about making too many, Chief Executive Jim Hackett said in an interview: “We’ve just put our head down, and we’re building.”

The automotive industry has a history of meeting national emergencies. During World War II, GM built tanks and ammunition. Ford made B-24 Liberator bombers at a factory about 5 miles from where the company plans to make ventilators. Ford developed an “iron lung” for polio patients in the 1940s.

Ventilators, which are about the size of a desktop printer, pump air into the lungs of patients who can’t breathe on their own, a symptom in the worst Covid-19 cases. The devices are made with hundreds of parts, including valves, blowers, tubes, electronics and software that regulates how much oxygen reaches the lungs and with how much air pressure.

The machines weren’t designed for high-volume production, such as the assembly-line automation used to churn out an F-150 pickup truck every minute.

Workers this month prepared a GM manufacturing facility in Kokomo, Ind., for the production of ventilators.



Photo:

AJ Mast for General Motors

Ventilator companies have relatively limited supply chains because they manufacture in small numbers. That has forced GM and Ford to create supply lines and assembly systems from scratch.

Last week, at the Ford engineering center, workers removed computer monitors from the tops of hundreds of standing desks. They were shipped to a factory in Ypsilanti, Mich., to be used as work stations.

Inside the 64-year-old factory, which makes oil pumps and hybrid-car batteries, among other things, two shifts of about 260 employees each will work in one-minute intervals to install their piece of the ventilator, said Adrian Price, the Ford director overseeing the operation. As they are built, the machines will be carried from one standing desk to the next on trays, he said.

Ford and GE officials said they licensed a ventilator design from a Florida manufacturer that uses fewer parts, which could accelerate mass production.

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Employees at the firm, Airon Corp., assemble ventilators by hand, producing about 10 a week. Ford, which invented the moving assembly line in 1913, is designing steps to speed up manufacturing to make 7,200 a week.

An Airon ventilator was delivered to Ford’s engineering center in Dearborn, Mich., around 10 p.m. on March 27. By late the next morning, a team of nearly two dozen engineers had picked the machine apart, scattering valves, tubes and electronic bits across conference room tables, Mr. Price said. They took photos and videos of each part and laid them out in order of how they might be assembled.

More than 500 workers have volunteered to work at the factory despite the risk of infection. More than 15 auto-factory workers in the Midwest have died from Covid-19, the United Auto Workers has said. It wasn’t known if any contracted the virus on the job.

At both Ford and GM, workers will be stationed at least 6 feet apart and wear medical-grade face masks, precautions likely to foreshadow factory life after companies officials and union leaders restart production at auto plants.

The companies pivoted to ventilator manufacturing in mid-March, around the time their factories and the rest of the U.S. economy were closing.

GM began working with Ventec Life Systems, a small Seattle-area ventilator maker. On March 19, four GM engineers flew to Seattle to look at the inner workings of the Ventec machines. Ventec shared specs and diagrams for their ventilator’s roughly 700 components.

GM employees in Kokomo, Ind.



Photo:

AJ Mast for General Motors

The following weekend, GM lined up nearly 100 suppliers. On Saturday night, GM purchasing chief Shilpan Amin was a few dozen parts short of meeting a deadline set by Chief Executive Mary Barra. He blasted an email to GM’s nearly 20,000 suppliers with detailed sketches and measurements for what he needed.

Michael Bugbee, a director at Chicago-area auto supplier Tenneco Inc., had planned to spend that weekend playing outside with his children. After a call from GM, he spent hours on conference calls in his home office.

Within 10 days, Mr. Bugbee’s company was producing wiring harnesses, normally used to connect to headlights and turn signals, for the GM-Ventec ventilator. “That process normally might take six months to a year,” he said.

GM this week plans to set up hundreds of workers at the facility in Kokomo, an idled facility that previously made electronic components for engine controls and air bags. Office furniture and carpeting were hauled out to make way for hundreds of new work stations.

Tight deadlines for the manufacturing makeover put pressure on suppliers but also offer opportunity.

Todd Olson, chief executive of Twin City Die Castings in Minneapolis, had planned to spend the weekend of March 21 calling lenders to warn them that auto-plant shutdowns were drying up company revenue.

Then he got a call from his GM purchasing manager asking if Mr. Olson could make a small piston for a compressor in a ventilator, among other components. Mr. Olson spent hours on the phone with materials and tooling suppliers. Within a week, his factory was churning out its first ventilator parts.

“The speed this is moving,” he said, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Write to Mike Colias at Mike.Colias@wsj.com

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