Trump uses wartime act but GM says it’s already moving fast
By TOM KRISHER
AP Auto Writer
DETROIT– Twelve days ago, General Motors put hundreds of workers on an urgent project to build breathing machines as hospitals and governors pleaded for more in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
But President Donald Trump, claiming the company wasn’t moving fast enough, on Friday invoked the Defense Production Act, which gives the government broad authority to direct companies to meet national defense needs.
Experts on managing factory production say GM is already making an extraordinary effort for a company that normally isn’t in the business of producing ventilators.
“That is lightning-fast speed to secure suppliers, learn how the products work, and make space in their manufacturing plant. You can’t get much faster than that,” said Kaitlin Wowak, a professor at the University of Notre Dame who focuses on industrial supply chains.
GM expects to produce ventilators at a rate of 10,000 per month starting in mid-April. The company is working with Ventec Life Systems, a small Seattle-area ventilator maker, and both say the Defense Production Act of 1950 doesn’t change what they’re doing because they’re already moving as fast as they can, fronting millions in capital with an uncertain return.
“I don’t think anybody could have done it faster,” said Gerald Johnson, GM’s global manufacturing chief.
Peter Navarro, Trump’s assistant for manufacturing policy, said Saturday that invoking the act was needed because GM “dragged its heels for days” in committing to the investments to start making ventilators at an automotive electronics plant in Kokomo, Indiana.
It was only a few days earlier that Trump had been holding up GM and Ford as examples of companies voluntarily responding to the outbreak without the need for him to invoke the act. Then on Friday, he slammed GM on Twitter and during his daily briefing for foot-dragging. On Sunday, he was back to praising the company during another briefing: “General Motors is doing a fantastic job. I don’t think we have to worry about them anymore.”
But GM says it had been proceeding on the same course all along.
The company got into the ventilator business on March 18 after being approached by stopthespread.org, a coalition of CEOs trying to organize companies to respond to the COVID-19 disease that has already claimed more than 30,000 lives globally. The organization introduced GM to Ventec, which makes small portable ventilators in Bothell, Washington.
The automaker pulled together manufacturing experts, engineers and purchasing specialists, and the next day had people at Ventec’s facility, a short distance from a nursing home where the virus killed at least 35 people.
They worked on speeding up Ventec’s manufacturing. A few days later, GM assigned more engineers and purchasing experts to figure out how it could make Ventec’s machines. Some Ventec parts makers couldn’t produce enough widgets fast enough, so GM went to its own parts bin to find suppliers to do the job, Johnson said.