DETROIT—General Motors' swift transformation into a makeshift medical device manufacturer started with a few phone calls.
On March 17—as the country was bracing for a pandemic that has a cumulative COVID-19 U.S. hospitalization rate of 107.2 people per 100,000 amid a critical ventilator shortage—GM CEO Mary Barra got a call from Stop the Spread, the nation's coordinated private-sector response to the virus. Stop the Spread asked if GM would collaborate with Ventec Life Systems, a medical device company near Seattle, to scale ventilator production.
About 50 suppliers also are contributing to the program, including PTI Engineered Plastics Inc., B&C Rubber & Plastics and ABC Technologies.
That call led to a few more. One was from Barra to Phil Kienle, GM's vice president of North American manufacturing and labor relations.
"Mary was fully committed to this endeavor, and it basically gave me free rein to pull in whatever resources we thought we might need. So 24 hours later, we're up in Seattle with the three other engineers with me," said Kienle.
It was vital for Kienle and his team to be on the ground at Ventec's headquarters. "It's abundantly clear that to move at the rate that we needed to, over the phone just wasn't going to work," he said. "We were not familiar with the technology, the parts, the pieces, everything about it."
Kienle and the engineers learned how the ventilators work and filmed every part of the manufacturing process. Then, they immediately sent a ventilator, along with 800 individual parts, to Detroit to help the purchasing team source components.
Before Kienle made the trip to Washington, Barra made another call. This time she reached out to Shilpan Amin, vice president of global purchasing and supply chain. Amin's team would be responsible for sourcing more than 400 ventilator parts. Barra's closing remarks conveyed the urgency of her request, said Amin: "She said, 'I'm going to need you to find a plan for every part in the next 48 hours.' "
On March 20—three days after the initial call from Stop the Spread—GM and Ventec announced they'd work together to build the lifesaving devices.