I am not very familiar with the mechanics of neither a car nor a medical ventilator. Considering global coronavirus pandemic and shortage of medical ventilators in many countries, I saw some news suggesting that automakers are starting to manufacture medical ventilators, or the leaders of countries are requesting them to do so (e.g. here or here). So I was wondering if there is some overlap or similarity in production engineering of a car and a medical ventilator that makes automakers as the best candidate for making medical ventilators.

In other words, from an engineering viewpoint, what makes automakers suitable for engineering and manufacturing medical ventilators at this moment?


I think you could hack any poppet valve engine block to create a rapid pressure swing adsorbtion machine, but better to start with a block designed as a compressor in the first place. Lubricating oil sequestering would be an issue.

Most people don't really understand the relationship between manufacturing, logistics, and assembly. They probably think they can just switch the assembly line over, but where are the parts coming from?

A friend of mine worked with an eye surgery group that did a lot of free work in third world countries. He was the lead guy who arrived a couple weeks ahead of the surgeons; and he had to build the surgery from scratch with zero budget - just using local talent and resources. He had saddlemakers build a bunch of bellows ventilators from wood and leather, just like the old smithy bellows. They were used with intubation under general anesthesia. It's not rocket science.

  • $\begingroup$ To expand on @PhilSweet's answer, auto manufacturers have a huge amount of talent, equipment, space, and a deep understanding of logistical supply chains. They could probably setup a custom assembly line in one of their break rooms. All they need is someone to give them the specs on what they are building. Many specialized ventilator parts are already being 3D-printed with designs uploaded to the net. During WWII the tanks, the planes, etc. were largely built by re-purposed automobile manufacturing plants. $\endgroup$ – Peter Rowell Mar 26 '20 at 0:23
  • $\begingroup$ "He had saddlemakers build a bunch of bellows ventilators from wood and leather, just like the old smithy bellows. They were used with intubation under general anesthesia." That doesn't sound hygienic at all. How are you supposed to sterilize them? $\endgroup$ – nick012000 Mar 26 '20 at 2:33

Automotive manufacturing encompasses a wide range of types of devices, many of which are broadly similar in terms of their structure and function to medical devices. e.g. processing electronics, actuators, sensors, feedback displays. They are also reasonably similar in the size of devices they make - this sort-of makes sense from an abstract perspective, as in both industries they are providing functions directly to humans.

Where they differ is in the scale and cost of production, with automotive being several orders of magnitude higher volume and cheaper. As the bottleneck in medical device production is likely to be volume and (perhaps to a lesser extent) cost, and the need for automotive parts is probably also diminished right now, it makes sense to at least investigate whether automotive production facilities could be short-term switched to produce medical devices.

As the type and model of automotive parts changes reasonably regularly I'd guess that retooling might be possible in time, but that there may be difficulties in cleanliness and certification/validation for medical use. However if the choice is between a uncertified ventilator or no ventilator I know which I would choose.

(caveat - all the above based on engineering speculation, I am not directly involved in these industries myself)


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