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How the seats in an F-150 helped Ford make ventilators and respirators

In the process, the automaker found out it can move faster than a Mustang Shelby.

Now playing: Watch this: Ford car parts inspired new respirator production
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Like GM and Tesla, Ford has shifted its industrial smarts and might to making respirators and ventilators for front-line medical workers fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Marcy Fisher, director of global body exterior and interior engineering at Ford, appeared on Now What to describe how the company came to make health devices while US auto manufacturing is shut down.

Ford started with clear plastic face shields for front-line workers, shifting some of its idled UAW workers to the task. Attaching a headband and strap to a curved piece of clear plastic might seem trivial for an automaker, but Fisher said Ford improved an open-source design to increase assembly speed and decrease waste. 

Ford clear face shields

A Ford UAW employee assembles clear face shields.

Ford

"We don't have a history with medical devices, but we know engineering, production and supply base," said Fisher. "We make one (face shield) about every 15 seconds, a little faster than we make a car!" But not by that much: Ford turns out an F-150 pickup every 53 seconds.

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"We're trying to match the spike of the pandemic. We started (face shield) production and within a week we made over 150,000 of them," Fisher added. "Next week our target is 1 million a week."

More challenging is Ford's production of the 3M-designed Powered Air Purifying Respirator, an electronic, active cousin of the common molded-fiber N95 mask.

3M Powered Air Purifying Respirator

The PAPR affords the wearer positive are pressure around their face to prevent infectious agents from reaching it.

3M

While most PAPR parts have to be made or sourced specifically for the device, Ford found that the seat-cooling fan from an F-150 was a solid starting point for a PAPR blower. An early Ford team sketch also shows what looks a lot like a battery for a cordless drill.

Early Ford respirator sketch

An early sketch of the Ford-produced version of a 3M PAPR respirator. Note the central placement of an F-150 seat fan and the battery that looks a lot like one from a cordless drill.

Ford

Ford is also making ventilators, the machines that keep the sickest COVID-19 patients alive. Ford licensed a ventilator design from a small Florida company called Airon whose ventilator is, ironically, called the Model A. Ford says it can raise Model A production from Airon's current rate of three a day to 500 a day, making a total of 50,000 by the end of July.

Airon Model A ventilator

Ford plans to radically increase production of the Airon pNeuton Model A ventilator it is licensed to make during the pandemic.

Ford

General Motors has also undertaken a wartime-like production shift to produce 10,000 ventilators per month by July. GM and Ford have a history of complementary manufacturing in crises: During WWII Ford made a huge number of B-24 bombers while GM made engines for them, a relationship echoed in the companies' sharing of a 10-speed vehicle transmission today

Fisher suggests emergency medical manufacturing will make companies like Ford perform better after the pandemic. "Clearly, nothing is impossible any more. We can remove the constraints, the roadblocks, and the time lags. This will change us forever."