DETROIT – Thirteen 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, 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 start making ventilators in mid-April, ramping up to a rate of 10,000 per month as quickly as it can.
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.
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.”