Inside the Canadian automotive industry’s mission to make more ventilators.

Article by: Steven Chase and Matthew McClearn

Linda Hasenfratz, chief executive of auto-parts giant Linamar Corp., a company from Guelph, Ont., known the world over for building engine parts and transmissions, is now suddenly and deeply immersed in the challenge of producing hospital ventilators.

It’s not a particular business line she had envisioned for her firm even a month ago. “We had identified medical devices broadly as a market that we are interested in and are looking to expand into at some point … we’re exploring the field but ventilators were not on the list.”

Amid the novel coronavirus crisis, Ms. Hasenfratz and her company are engaged in what amounts to an unprecedented project. They are teaming up with other auto-parts makers to help a small Brampton, Ont.-based firm, O-Two Medical Technologies, produce 10,000 ventilators in a matter of months for the Ontario government.

The Linamar CEO says, in some ways, an engine and a ventilator are not that different. “Both are complex assemblies full of very critical, precisely manufactured parts that need to be assembled in a certain way – and then the full assembly needs to be tested.”

O-Two is in charge but Linamar is spearheading the work by Magna International Inc., Martinrea International Inc. and ABC Technologies Inc., which have volunteered to bring their expertise to bear in this rapid escalation of production.

Plans are still being hammered out, but Ms. Hasenfratz said the auto-parts makers’ contributions will include parts. “We are tooling up a whole bunch of machined parts, like 40 different parts, that we can manufacture for them.”

Auto-parts makers say their industry is very good at expanding production quickly, manufacturing extremely precise items, dealing with suppliers to expedite the shipping of raw materials and components as well as eliminating or reducing bottlenecks on the production line. Plus, these firms have the financial resources on hand to quickly procure items.

“We’re used to highly precise manufacturing with very tight [measurement ] tolerances … and very high standards in terms of cleanliness,” Ms. Hasenfratz says.

She said parts makers could also take charge of subassembly – putting together components that will then form part of the ventilators – to make it easier for O-Two to focus on final assembly and testing.

Flavio Volpe, president of the Auto Parts Manufacturers Association, which played a crucial role in bringing together the assistance for O-Two, said one option would be akin to sharing assembly of a Lego kit with a 30-page instruction manual. “It might be the best way to get to 10,000 ventilators is five pages belong to Linamar, you get your current medical suppliers to do five pages, you get Magna to do five pages and then Martinrea to do five pages. By the time we get to page 30, the product is being assembled inside O-Two’s facilities.”

The O-Two contract is one of three ventilator project streams that Linamar is working on right now. They’re also helping Toronto-based Thornhill Medical Inc. produce 500 ventilators for the federal government. Linamar is in charge of final assembly and managing the supply chain for this deal. Also, Linamar is making components for a variety of customers that are producing their own ventilators.

Brendan Sweeney, managing director of the Trillium Network for Advanced Manufacturing, said the pivot that the auto-parts sector is undertaking into helping medical manufacturers makes sense.

“They are really good at scale. They have relatively big plants. They are good at manufacturing thousands of complex products with no defects,” Mr. Sweeney said.

“A big part of auto manufacturing is taking widget A, widget B and widget C and bringing them all together in the right sequence. There’s both an art and science behind it.”

Ms. Hasenfratz said efforts to help Canadians cope with the impact of COVID-19 has produced a great morale boost for the company as it copes with the economic impact of the shutdown of auto industry production in North America. She said about 400 employees have returned to work to help.

“It’s given us something to focus on. We’ve been able to bring folks back from layoffs for these different programs we’re working on. And given them something to do that they actually feel really good about.”

She said one longer-term benefit of this is that it might help companies such as O-Two ramp up their business and find a place on the global stage.

O-Two Medical did not respond to interview requests from The Globe and Mail on Thursday. A statement on its website said all employees were working “around the clock” on Ontario’s order, and “as such will not be doing media interviews.”

In the United States, General Motors Co. began a similar partnership with American ventilator manufacturer Ventec Life Systems on Mar. 20 to build 10,000 ventilators a month. General Motors of Canada Co. spokesperson David Paterson said GM provided advice to the Canadian initiative based on its early experience with Ventec, but is not directly involved.

Mr. Paterson added that ventilators are complex medical devices subject to strict regulation. Their manufacturers, however, typically produce in small quantities. GM helped Ventec select a model of ventilator that could be produced rapidly. Over three days, the two companies identified the device’s 700 components and drew up a plan for how they could produce each one at a much higher volume.

GM then assigned auto-parts makers with relevant expertise to make some of those parts, which in turn sourced subcomponents from their own supply chains. GM set up tooling and manufacturing space at its plant in Kokomo, Ind. Ventec and GM say they’re poised to deliver ventilators as soon as later this month.

“Where we can really help them is to achieve scale quickly,” he said, “because we know how to do logistics and supply chains probably better than any other industry.”

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