General Motors employee Paul Cole on April 17, 2020 at the GM manufacturing facility in Kokomo, Indiana, where GM and Ventec Life Systems are partnering to produce VOCSN critical care ventilators in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo by AJ Mast for General Motors
Paul Cole smiles and laughs as he discusses the connection between himself and his great-grandfather, a member of the “Arsenal of Democracy” during World War II.
Cole, a fourth-generation General Motors worker, is part of what some have called the “arsenal of health” to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and assist in building life-saving ventilators and personal protective equipment for first responders and health-care workers.
“About 50 miles down the road, he was doing it during World War II and now I’m doing it during Covid-19,” said the GM business manager who typically builds pickups for the automaker in Indiana. “Honestly, thinking about it, my grandmother was very prideful of GM. I’ve had aunts and uncles, and everybody retire” from GM, he said, adding “I know that they would be proud of the moment.”
Cole’s great-grandfather, Roy Caudell, worked as a supervisor for Delco-Remy, once a division of GM in Anderson, Indiana, which built parts during WWII used for aircrafts and tanks, among other wartime equipment.
For weeks, Cole, 42, has been working tirelessly to begin producing critical care ventilators for the U.S. at a closed engineering facility in Kokomo, Indiana. He worked on streamlining production of the devices, specifically the metering valve, which is part of the ventilator that regulates how the patient receives oxygen.
About 240 salaried employees outside of GM’s Kokomo operations assisted in producing the ventilators with Ventec, according to the automaker.
“It’s a life-saving measure and our motto here is ‘moments matter,'” Cole said. “I knew I could contribute to the cause and hopefully save lives across the country and across the world.”
New life for a shuttered factory
GM started producing and shipping the ventilators last week. At the direction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the first devices were delivered Friday to two Illinois hospitals. GM says 550 United Auto Workers members are producing ventilators on one shift of eight to 10 hours, seven days a week. A second shift is expected to begin this week at the facility.
The 180,000 square-foot building is one of several in GM’s Kokomo components complex, which has gone from thousands of workers to hundreds today.
General Motors employee Patty Waltman on April 17, 2020 at the GM manufacturing facility in Kokomo, Indiana, where GM and Ventec Life Systems are partnering to produce VOCSN critical care ventilators in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo by AJ Mast for General Motors
Patty Waltman, a UAW worker at GM’s Kokomo complex who was laid off in January, said the work is rewarding as well as needed.
“This was my last hope to have a job if I wanted to stay with GM, so I was excited to come back and be a part of this,” she said. “To save lives, I think that’s just the icing on the cake to be able to do that.”
Waltman, 62, was a team leader for circuit boards for engine control modules for various vehicles. She’s now doing electrical work on the ventilator.
“It’s really great to be able to see this ventilator and how it actually functions,” she said. “To see all the process, to see all the detail that goes into it, It’s pretty phenomenal.”
Waltman hopes the temporary work turns into permanent jobs: “This is just huge for us to be able to be a part of it,” she said. “We just hope it expands into something even greater.”
GM trained the workers, sourced needed materials and updated the three-story facility in under 11 days. While frustrating at times due to the rapidness of the launch, Cole described it as packing “25 pounds into a 5 pound sac to get it done so quickly.”
GM expects to hire 1,000 UAW members, many of whom have been laid off from the Kokomo operations, for the ventilator work. The automaker signed a deal to build 30,000 ventilators for the national stockpile for $489.4 million under the Defense Production Act, which was invoked last month by President Donald Trump.
The order is expected to be fulfilled by the end of August, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. A third shift producing ventilators is expected to begin by June, GM said.
General Motors Chairman and CEO Mary Barra (and Ventec Life Systems CEO Chris Kiple talk with a worker while touring the GM manufacturing facility in Kokomo, Indiana on April 14, 2020.
GM CEO and Chairman Mary Barra said the work that went into producing the ventilators is one of the “proudest moments” of her nearly 40-year career with the automaker.
“When I look here and I see all of you here today, volunteering to be here, volunteering to be a part of something that is truly, truly life-saving, it is just overwhelming,” she said in a video released by the automaker. “I want to thank you all for everything that you’re doing and you’re going to do.”
Barra toured the facility Tuesday with GM President Mark Reuss and other GM and Ventec executives, including Chris Kiple, CEO of the Washington-based medical device company.
“From the very first phone call we had with the General Motors team, it very quickly turned into action,” he said. “Literally within minutes we were solving problems together. And as everyone on the floor knows, we haven’t stopped working together to solve problems.”
‘Arsenal of health’
GE and Ford signed a deal with the U.S. government under the Defense Production Act to produce 50,000 ventilators for $336 million. The ventilators, which are more basic models than the ones being built by GM, are expected to be produced by July 13.
GM and Ford said they are producing the ventilators at-cost, meaning they won’t make a profit at the end of the day.
Both companies as well as other automakers also are producing personal protection equipment, or PPE, for healthcare workers and first responders. The supplies include face masks, face shields and other medical gear as part of an “arsenal of health” to combat COVID-19.
GM said Sunday that it is expanding its manufacturing of personal protective equipment to include latex-free face shields, protective gowns and aerosol boxes. All of these supplies are being donated.
Other automakers also are providing vehicles or services to those on the frontline combating the disease. For example, Mazda announced Wednesday that it will provide free standard oil changes and enhanced cleaning services for U.S. healthcare workers at participating dealers nationwide. They do not need to own a Mazda.
Volkswagen last week announced a program that will pay its more than 600 franchised U.S. dealers to put their service loaner fleet to use for free pickup and delivery of needed supplies and food. Dealers will be given a stipend per vehicle to cover fuel and lease costs. The German automaker also is producing personal protective equipment.