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Ventec’s VOCSN multi-function ventilators, which integrate five separate medical devices. / Reuters

Who could have imagined that the coronavirus pandemic would be, in part, an automotive story? More than that: Automakers, in particular GM and Ford but also plenty of others, may wind up being some of the story’s heroes. 

The New York Times had a glimpse inside the GM effort the other day, and now The Seattle Times’ Geoff Baker provides a better sense of the timeline by which General Motors and Ventec Life Systems, of Bothell, Washington, went from perfect strangers to partners in mass-producing Ventec’s innovative multifunction ventilators — devices that might ultimately save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans. This is all happening astonishingly fast.

Two weeks ago, the project seemed dead before it had even begun, Baker reports. The Ventec machine has 700 components. But one of them was made in India, in a factory that was in coronavirus lockdown. Without that part, the machine might as well be a doorstop. 

“GM literally sent people there that night to India to get boots on the ground to help us get that factory opened,” Ventec CEO Chris Kiple told The Times. “It changed the conversation.”

GM had to get that supplier going again, as well as that supplier’s suppliers on back up the chain, and it had to surmount many other problems on other fronts. But just as Ventec brings its technology and patents to the table, GM brings a century of experience making a thing — many copies of a thing — and pulling together a worldwide web of suppliers and resources to do it. 

Kiple said his company had sought a partner since early March. Thirty seconds into his first call with GM on March 19, he knew he’d found it. “Where we had talked to many other people, GM went into action,’’ Kiple said. “There was no talk. … It was just, ‘What do you need?’’’

That call was the 19th. By the 20th, GM had people in India solving that supplier problem. By the 22nd, GM had dozens of people in Bothell who then fanned out. The Times describes how GM zeroed in on a $4 million parts order from a crucial supplier in neighboring Woodinville. 

Ventec builds 250 ventilators a month in Bothell. With GM’s help, it’ll get that number up to 2,000. Meanwhile the partners expect to start building machines at a GM plant in Kokomo, Ind., in mid-April and quickly ramp up to 10,000 a month there, for a total monthly output of 12,000. And, Kiple says, GM is doing this at cost.

That’s right: From initial phone call to mass production of a complex device that GM previously knew nothing about. In a month.

It’s difficult to understand how “GM was wasting time,” which was the White House’s accusation last Friday before President Trump eventually sang a different tune on Monday. 

A feeling of pride would be the more appropriate response.

For the full story, visit The Seattle Times, which is providing free access to all coverage on the pandemic.

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