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Auto Manufacturers Could Build Ventilators: The Power of Standards in a Global Crisis

As COVID-19 shutters manufacturing plants in North America and around the world, GM, Ford, and Tesla are all considering plans to start building critical medical equipment, such as ventilators, for patients with the most acute cases of the virus. 

On March 18, 2020, the Detroit News confirmed that at least two of the major auto manufacturers based in that city—General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co.—are in talks with governments in the US and the UK to discuss how their closed plants could help produce necessary supplies to fight COVID-19, including ventilators. The move recalls the World War II era, when auto plants were repurposed to build tanks, planes, and trucks for the US military. An article in Forbes called Mary Barra, the chairman and CEO of GM, "Rosie the Ventilator Maker"after Rosie the Riveter, the World War II icon of manufacturing strength.

Early the next morning on March 19, Elon Musk of Tesla also tweeted "We will make ventilators if there is a shortage."

Regardless of who they are, auto manufacturers who start building medical equipment will need to proceed with immense caution. A faulty ventilator could sentence a patient to death who might otherwise have recovered. Even when produced in a facility that normally handles car parts, it's vitally important for ventilators to meet internationally accepted quality and safety standards for medical devices, such as ISO 13485. These unusual times are precisely when the power—and necessity—of standards grow the most clear.

Standards allow organizations to pivot quickly in a crisis while minimizing risk. When an organization needs to move into a new area, it can rely on a set of established guidelines to help shorten the learning curve. Regardless of the industry, standards lead to better product quality, improved consistency, and faster time-to-market. With so many manufacturers potentially readying themselves to shift industries in a matter of weeks, it's reassuring that standards exist to help them ensure safely made medical products that are also safe to use.

Kara Phelps
Kara Phelps
Kara Phelps is the content specialist for ISA.

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