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European automotive industry helps in COVID-19 response

24 March 2020 Tim Urquhart, B.A.

(Excerpt)

A number of European OEMs are formulating responses to government requests to help with equipment to deal with the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) virus outbreak. According to a Reuters report, the German government has asked the country's carmakers to help with manufacturing ventilators and masks as the government looks to tap into the immense resources available for design, engineering and manufacturing that exists in these organisations. A spokesperson for the German government's economy ministry said, "This is a company decision. Companies have to take the decision themselves." The Volkswagen (VW) Group released a press statement on 20 March that they will be providing about 200,000 FFP-2 and FFP-3 protective masks for public health protection 'in the near future', in the first material delivery of health equipment by an OEM. The project is being undertaken with close co-operation with the German Federal Minister of Health Jens Spahn. Commenting on the move VW board member for HR Gunnar Kilian said, "Solidarity take priority for Volkswagen. This principle also applies beyond the factory gate. People working in the public health sector are currently performing outstanding services to society. We are convinced that these face masks will be put to the best use by them. The opinion of the Board of Management is unanimous: Volkswagen is pleased to provide unbureaucratic support." In addition, VW has said it has assembled a working group to look at ways it can use its 3D printing technology to help manufacture essential medical equipment to help counter the outbreak. VW said it could potentially start production when it received existing designs and blueprints for ventilators. VW is also building production capacity for protective masks in China, and is supporting the German efforts against the outbreak with the supply thermometers masks, disinfectants and diagnostic equipment. Daimler is also looking at ways it can support the German government's efforts.

In the UK companies have formed a consortium to help with the design and production of ventilators with a plan to start production in four weeks Nissan and McLaren are involved in the project with aerospace engineering company Meggit. Nissan is said to be focused on helping expanding the production of existing ventilator designs, while McLaren is looking at designing and building a new, simplified ventilator design that could feasibly be put into production in as little as four weeks. In Italy Fiat Chrysler Automotive (FCA) and Ferrari have been in discussions with Siare engineering, the country's biggest ventilator manufacturer, over the possibility of expanding production.

Outlook and implications

Europe's OEMs helping to design and manufacture medical ventilators would have been an unthinkable state of affairs just a month ago, but such is the increasingly serious and rapid nature of the COVID-19 virus outbreak, manufacturers are now looking at the ways they can best respond to government requests. The UK government is concerned especially that its stock of 5,000-8,000 ventilators is not adequate, and this has been at the heart of the initiative. UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said one version of a ventilator made by the consortium of non-medical equipment manufacturers is already being tested and demonstrated. He said, "More than half a dozen companies have already made one in prototype, to check with us that we are happy with the quality." It makes sense that the smaller, nimbler organisations like McLaren are looking at new design and engineering work while volume OEMs such as Nissan are looking to help to expand capacity. There will be a positive PR dividend for the companies involved, although they are undoubtedly doing it for selfless reasons, and this will not be a negative as and when the industry starts to get back to normal.


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