General Motors is quickly moving to repurpose parts of two U.S. automotive factories to manufacture health-care supplies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
GM's efforts, which have received the ire and, more recently, praise of President Donald Trump, include manufacturing FDA-cleared Level 1 surgical masks at a manufacturing facility in Warren, Michigan, and Ventec VOCSN critical care ventilators at a components plant in Kokomo, Indiana.
The automaker Sunday night said both projects are progressing, including plans this week to begin making surgical masks at the facility in suburban Detroit. Production of the ventilators, in partnership with Washington-based Ventec Life Systems, is expected to begin as soon as possible, with shipments starting as soon as next month.
"This pandemic is unprecedented and so is this response, with incredible support from GM and their suppliers," said Chris Kiple, CEO of Ventec Life Systems, in a release last week. "Healthcare professionals on the front lines deserve the best tools to treat patients and precision critical care ventilators like VOCSN are what is necessary to save lives."
Two days after criticizing GM's response and a reported $1 billion cost to build ventilators for the government, Trump on Sunday commended the automaker twice for its efforts.
"General Motors is doing a fantastic job. I don't think we need to worry about General Motors," Trump said Sunday night, according to Reuters. He also said, "They really seem to be working very, very hard. I think I'm getting very good reports about General Motors."
GM says it is donating its resources at cost.
Trump criticized GM and CEO Mary Barra in a tweet on Friday, saying the company wanted "top dollar" for making ventilators. He also suggested he would invoke the Defense Production Act to force companies to make them. The Korean War-era statute can force certain American companies to produce materials that are in short supply in a national emergency.
Following GM confirming it will build critical-care ventilators with Ventec Life Systems in Indiana, Trump ordered GM to make the ventilators under the Defense Production Act.
Repurposing parts of facilities from automotive to health supplies is an in-depth process and not something that can be done overnight.
"Ventec, GM and our supply base have been working around the clock for over a week to meet this urgent need," GM said in a statement last week following Trump criticizing the automaker's speed in producing the ventilators.
Just for production of the masks, a small group of workers had to ready a "clean room" that involved sterilizing the entire area, training and readying supplies.
Similar things are being done in Indiana, where the automaker is preparing space for 1,000 United Auto Workers-represented workers to build the much-needed ventilators. The workers will be paid but are volunteering to do the work.
UAW Vice President Terry Dittes, who oversees the union's GM Department, said the UAW is "all in – to find ways to partner together to flatten this curve and save lives."
"The UAW has a proud history of stepping up in times of national emergency," Dittes said in a statement. "General Motors should be commended for stepping up at a crucial moment in our history."
The number of UAW members who have volunteered for the work as well as details of the specific training they'll be going through was not immediately available.