Kokomo GM plant may pivot production to ventilators

GM's Kokomo plant (WTHR/Jennie Runevitch)

KOKOMO, Ind. (WTHR) — With a looming shortage of ventilators nationwide, for patients who have COVID-19, General Motors soon could start a much different kind of assembly line in Howard County.

GM announced it may pivot production at GM Components Holdings in Kokomo from making components for cars to building ventilators to fight the coronavirus.

"I was very happy to hear that GM in Kokomo is partnering with Ventec Life System to ramp up production of ventilators soon," said Dr. Kristina Box, Indiana's State Health commissioner at a news conference Tuesday. "And that will add to our existing capabilities across the state."

The state, GM and Ventec have no specific time frame on a potential transition yet.

But experts said that kind of change is possible.

"GM is not a ventilator company. Can they do it? Absolutely," said Amrou Awaysheh, faculty member with the IU Kelley School of Business. "It's gonna take some time for them to get the know-how and the speed. Remember they've been making cars for a long time and they are good at it."

The Hoosiers making those cars aren't doing it right now.

The plant has been shut down since Friday because of COVID-19. But this project could get them back to work.

GM tells Eyewitness News that the partnership with Ventec is just starting to explore feasibility, so they're still seeing if they can do it.

But this is not unprecedented in times of crisis.

During World War II, many factories, including GM, shifted production to bullets and bombers.

Experts said a conversion to ventilators will take months, not days.

"Just like when they shift from making one model year to another model year, a redesign, they change their processes in the factory," Awaysheh said. "So those same engineers are thinking, 'ok we used to make cars, how do we change to make ventilators?'"

That will involve retooling equipment, retraining workers and getting new parts suppliers that are completely different from auto parts suppliers.

Eyewitness News reached out to UAW Local 292 in Kokomo to see how this could impact workers, but union leaders did not respond to our requests for comment.

"If you're used to buying you know, bolts and nuts for cars, you can now think of OK how do we buy components and sub-components for ventilators?" Awaysheh said. "It's not easy, but it is possible."

The eventual goal is to add thousands of ventilators to hospitals where a shortage is becoming more dangerous by the day.