Ford, Fiat, Ferrari are working to produce masks/ventilators. Can Malaysian car companies do the same?
Hans · Mar 26, 2020 05:30 PM
You might have read news reports of several car manufacturers – BYD, Ferrari, Fiat, Ford, GM, and Nissan – have stepped in to assist in manufacturing ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE), which are in chronic short supply, to help fight the battle against Covid-19.
This lead us to the next question, we have all seen videos of our frontline medical personnel resorting to using garbage bags as PPE, as supply of PPE at hospitals has run out.
While the government have arranged for fresh supplies, our hospitals and clinics are using PPEs up faster than the country’s medical supply chain can keep up.
Can cars plant assist in producing medical equipment and protective wear?
Malaysia has 15 car plants, including more two commercial facilities operated by Scania and Hino not listed in the table above.
Still, these plants cannot be retooled to produce PPE for frontliners or ventilators that critical case Covid-19 patients need. Here’s why:
1. Mismatch of tools/equipment required
A car plant is built and configured to handle mostly metal and steel type materials.
These equipment cannot be reconfigured to produce rubber products like gloves, or handle very fine materials used to make N95 grade masks, or even to produce very highly precise equipment like ventilators.
So how come those car plants in other countries can produce medical equipment? The short answer is no, they didn’t.
With the exception of BYD, none of these companies have made any face masks or ventilators, at least not on their own.
What they did however, was to offer their expertise and plant capacity. Exactly how these car plants can make a ventilator or face mask, is still being worked out.
BYD, and a few other Chinese car plants are outliers. Those plants operate at very high capacity and produce a lot of parts in-house. The logic is like this - if a car company can produce the 50,000 or so parts that are required to make a car, surely they must have the expertise or tools/equipment that can be redeployed to do something like a face mask for example.
Which was exactly what BYD did when it retooled its plant to produce liquid sanitizers and face masks. In fact, BYD is now the world's biggest manufacturer of face masks.
Sherry Li, Director General of BYD’s President Office, said: “A production line for high-quality face masks requires about 1,300 parts for various gears, chains, and rollers, 90 percent of which are BYD’s self-made parts.”
The second part of Sherry Li’s answer gave us an important insight. In most car plants, the equipment and tools are made by third-party specialists, simply because these specialists can do the job a lot cheaper and faster. Very few car companies make the robots/tools used to make their own cars.
Honda is one of the few exceptions, believing that having full control and understanding the basic knowledge behind every step of the manufacturing process is vital. Honda’s subsidiary Honda Engineering, established in 1974, makes all the jigs and tools used in Honda plants worldwide.
We now learn that BYD is another one of such company. Since BYD builts and designs its own factory equipment, they have the legal right and expertise to take it apart and modify it as they see fit.
You can’t do that unless you own the intellectual property rights to the equipment, and because you are producing medical products, there are legal liabilities to consider as well.
The plant retooling by BYD is no simple task, involving over 3,000 engineers. Our local car plants certainly don't have that many resources to move around. It should be noted that BYD doesn't just make cars, but also batteries for smartphones and electric vehicles, so their engineering pool is immense.
2. Lack of expertise
The other reason these car companies are able to offer their assistance is because they operate in a country or area with a very strong manufacturing base, with expertise in producing medical products.
Ford for example, is working with fellow American companies GE Healthcare and 3M, polling their engineering resources to study how they can build ventilators using car parts.
Obviously a Ford engineer knows nothing about making a ventilator. Ford is merely offering its facilities and engineers, leaving it to the experts in the medical field to decide on how a car plant can assist to reducing the worldwide shortage of ventilators.
Car makers might not be able to produce a complete ventilator in their plant, but perhaps they can assist in producing some specific mechanical parts, an air pump for example.
Likewise for Fiat and Ferrari, which are stepping in because they have been requested by another Italian company Siare, Italy’s biggest ventilator manufacturer, to assist.
A simple part like a plastic face shield however, can be easily produced but it’s faster and cheaper for private individuals/small companies to produce it using 3D printers than to restart, and retool a big car plant (all plants are shutdown at the moment).
Our local car plants don’t use 3D printers because that’s not a common manufacturing method for automotive grade components.
We are not too sure about the state of medical products manufacturing in our country, but in any case, the leadership in this area has to come from medical products manufacturers. If they need help, they have to voice it out. Car companies have no business mucking around in an area they have no expertise in.
3. Legal issues, compliance
Medical equipment needs to be certified and approved by the relevant government authority.
Ford and GM can start working on building ventilators at their plants because they have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Over in the UK, Nissan, one of the few foreign companies still manufacturing cars there, along British companies with McLaren, Jaguar Land Rover, and Rolls Royce (aerospace) have been asked by UK’s Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), to help produce ventilators.
To keep things legal and to speed things up, Prime Minister Borris Johnson approved the transfer of a blueprint for a ventilator to these car companies, with a special request to have them work together to begin producing 20,000 units, with work to commence within two weeks.
Without the necessary approvals by authorities, car companies cannot, and shouldn’t get involved in producing medical products.