Retirees Get Behind-the-Scenes Look at Ford’s COVID-19 Ventilator Project

Robert Wade, senior technical leader for Engine Component Design, provided Ford Retired Engineering Executives (FREE) with a behind-the-scenes look at what went into the company’s collaboration with General Electric last summer to manufacture more than 50,000 ventilators to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 80 Ford retirees attended the presentation, which was held online.

The ventilators were part of Project Apollo, Ford’s codename for its efforts to produce personal protective equipment, which also included respirators, face shields and medical gowns for COVID-19 patients.

“Ford called this Project Apollo because we had to take the capabilities that we had in house to make the equipment needed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Wade, adding that the project was named after the Apollo 13 launch in 1970 when a lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank failed two days into the mission, forcing the astronauts to improvise a fix.

After Ford and GE agreed to produce the Model A-E ventilator, a cross-functional Ford team worked quickly.  Purchasing managed significant complexity, sourcing 310 parts, procuring 2 license agreements to obtain part prints and issuing more than 8 Defense Production Act letters to suppliers to expedite production.  The Design team re-engineered 71 unique parts; engineered, validated and implemented 135 running design changes; and completed 970 hours of verification testing on the first 19 ventilators.

“The Assembly team was incredible.  We had over 132 work stations where operators would assembly the components, and the ventilator line ran about 60 jobs per hour, equivalent to the current F-150 line,” said Wade.  “One of our proudest achievements was hiring 1,100 operators into the UAW workforce to do assembly, calibration and repair.  Many of those employees have since gone on to join the Michigan Assembly Plant where they are now working on the new Bronco.”

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Within 50 days from the initial discussion with GE, production parts were rolling off the line at the Rawsonville Assembly Plant.  And within five months, the team produced and distributed 50,000 ventilators to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Reflecting on the experience afterwards, Wade said the elements of success that went into the ventilator project included:

  • A group of outstanding people coming together to create solutions to save lives
  • Full management support with resources, time, and money at the team’s disposal
  • Willing volunteers fully dedicated to the project
  • Resilience of the team
  • A small, empowered team that was able to move very quickly
  • Community ownership of the project
  • Respect among all team members

“The commitment to success is the biggest lesson to take away from the ventilator project,” said Wade.  “It started from the top.  Our leadership called The White House and asked what we could do, and they were ready to use all of Ford’s resources to help with the COVID crisis.”

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