Picture credit- Shivani Priyam

Will auto companies join the race to build ventilators?

COVID-19 Health

A slowdown in the industry and its idle capacity make vehicle makers prime candidates to meet the demand

By Shivani Priyam

Bengaluru: The exponential growth in Covid-19 cases and mounting fatalities worldwide have brought home the acute shortage of ventilators for critically ill patients as well as protective gear for health workers. As ventilator manufacturers are hard pressed to expand capacity in the short run, governments around the world have asked engineering firms with idle capacity to switch production lines to manufacture medical equipment and

The US government took the lead in asking auto giants Ford and General
Motors to re-purpose their idle plants to build ventilators, and it’s likely that US automakers will switch some of their assembly capacity to meet emergency requirements. New York governor Andrew Cuomo has called for at least 30,000 additional ventilators in his state alone, and many tens of thousands more may be needed than are now available nationwide.

In India too, the expected surge in the number of cases is putting pressure on ventilator manufacturers to expand capacity to help the growing numbers of critically ill-patients. The recent slowdown in the auto industry and the large idle capacity it has created make auto companies prime candidates to meet this need. Most of them manufacture or import components to assemble equipment similar to that used in ventilators, whether it’s pump technology or the air conditioning used in automobiles.

Auto companies are evaluating their existing plants and equipment to re-engineer to produce ventilators. Says Piyush Gujranwala, manager at the Hero Moto Corp showroom in Kengeri, “As per the new guidelines on the manufacturing of ventilators by automobile makers, the existing facilities possibly would not work, as the technology, skills and resource needs are different. We need to be focusing more on a specific technology-based approach.”

As The Economic Times reports, the union ministry of health has asked Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL), a public-sector defence equipment manufacturer, to produce 30,000 ventilators in the next two months in collaboration with local manufacturers. Agva Healthcare in Noida has also been given an order to manufacture 10,000 ventilators within a month.

While there’s no accurate data on the number of operational ventilators in Indian hospitals, public and private, India Today magazine estimates the number at fewer than 50,000. Says Dr MS Dharmendra, a neuropsychiatric surgeon in NIMHANS, Bangalore, “We are facing a shortage of ventilators and symptoms of respiratory illness show an upward trend. So, any move by the new companies to support in this direction should be appreciated and provided for in terms of know-how, funding and capacities.”

The central government has granted exemptions from basic customs duty and health cess on the import of ventilators, face masks, surgical masks, personal protection equipment (PPE) and COVID-19 test kits. But a few manufacturers would prefer to license the technology from specialized producers and manufacture the equipment themselves. 

Says Guru Prakash, a software professional with Infosys in Bangalore, “It is indeed an interesting opportunity for the companies to manufacture something completely new apart from automobiles. How efficiently they can be delivered would be the real test of time.”

The union ministry of health and family welfare has deputed high-level multi-disciplinary central teams to assist state health departments manage cluster-containment plans and hospital preparedness, which includes ICU and ventilator management for COVID-19 patients. Making life-saving equipment like ventilators is the first step.


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