Carmakers switch to ventilator production, further impacting metals demand

Carmakers throughout Europe and the US recently shuttered car production as markets fell amid coronavirus, slashing demand for steel and aluminum. Many of the stoppages now appear long term amid government-imposed lockdowns and carmakers are responding to a new call – government demands to switch to the manufacture of ventilators and masks for hospital use.

Carmakers are obvious candidates for production of ventilators, which they already produce for use in car engines. The toll on metals consumption from this switch in activity will, however, be great, especially if this is for a prolonged period: the automotive sector is the second biggest consumer of steel after construction. Ventilators are, meanwhile, made primarily from plastics or other flexible materials, with only small parts such as valves and possibly some frames made of metal.

According to the World Steel Association, a car uses an average of 900 kg of steel, while automotive consultancy Ducker puts the average use of aluminum in cars at 179 kg.

US – 3D printing

The move is already well underway. In the US, Ford, General Motors and Tesla have responded to government calls to produce ventilators. Tesla founder Elon Musk’s news bulletin reported Monday that Tesla had donated 50,000 surgical masks and his SpaceX firm would ship 1,200 ventilators this week.

Ford has joined GE Healthcare in increasing production of a simplified version of the ventilators used for treating patients with the respiratory problems caused by the virus, the automaker said in a statement Tuesday.

Ford is also teaming up with US-based conglomerate 3M to develop a new powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) using parts from both companies to meet surging demand from the healthcare sector. This new respirator could be produced in a Ford facility by automotive workers. To speed up the process Ford and 3M are looking to use existing “off-the-shelf” car parts like fans from the cooled seats in Ford’s F-150 truck for airflow. Ford is also planning to use its 3D printing facility to increase production of disposable respirators, starting from 1,000 units per month.

Ford is also evaluating a separate effort with the UK government to produce ventilators.

GM is teaming up with medical devices company Ventec Life Systems to enable ventilator production to ramp up.

UK carmakers await guidance

In the UK, the ventilator drive is being managed by the Cabinet Office.

Last week, the Department for Health and Social Care began delivering ventilator blueprints to more than 60 military engineering companies and car manufacturers, including Rolls-Royce, Airbus, Jaguar Land Rover and Unipart, according to specialist publication Wired. Their mandate was to help the National Health Service fight the virus by manufacturing 20,000 ventilators in their factories, to supplement the 5,000 currently used by the NHS.

Toyota and Vauxhall have indicated a readiness to assist in the UK.

Steelmakers are themselves unable to adapt their production to make ventilators, according to UK manufacturing and steel industry trade association Make UK, which says it has been “leading the charge in terms of identifying those manufacturers who can, and putting them in touch with the government.”

It makes sense for automotive producers to make ventilators, as 99% of UK automotive output is now halted, according to Mike Hawes, chief executive of SMMT, the UK’s Society of Motor Manufacturers.

“The car manufacturers are doing all they can to support production” of items such as ventilators, but “are waiting for government guidance,” an SMMT spokeswoman said.

A spokesman for Honda in the UK said the company has been contacted by the UK government about the feasibility of supporting the manufacture of additional ventilators.

“We have identified some potential areas where we may be able to provide support and have communicated this to government,” he said.

EU carmakers offer help

Germany’s Daimler said it has received “inquiries from the medical sector. We are currently checking how we can help by for example providing 3D printers or production expertise.”

The German car association VDA said the German car industry would be supporting medical engineering, but that companies first have to undergo quality control measures for safety reasons.

A Hyundai representative in Germany said: “Hyundai is looking into many opportunities to support the work against the COVID-19 virus and is already supporting in a variety of fields. The usage of production facilities and capacities is one measure the company is looking into.”

A BMW spokesman in Germany said if the company received any such requests, it would “of course be willing to support this. It would be conceivable, for example, to produce component parts for such devices with 3-D printers,” he said.

Toyota Europe, based in Belgium, says it has offered to help the UK government in increasing output of existing ventilator manufacturers to upscale production methods where it has expertise.

A Nissan spokesman in France said the company was “ready to support any initiatives where its manufacturing and engineering expertise can be useful.”

In Italy, where last weekend the government ordered suspension of nearly all industrial production, carmakers Ferrari and Fiat Chrysler are in talks with the nation’s biggest ventilator manufacturer to help to boost production.

Siare Engineering, which is based in northern Italy, where death rates from the coronavirus have risen sharply, is in talks with Fiat Chrysler, Ferrari and Italian parts maker Marelli to make some parts, source others and to possibly help with the assembly of ventilators.

— Diana Kinch with Annalisa Villa, Jaqueline Holman, Wojtek Laskowski, Len Griffin and Laura Varriale