2 Apr 20

COVID-19: European carmakers get creative to make medical equipment

Or: how windscreen wiper motors can power automated ventilators. But it’s a fragmented effort.

In Europe, carmakers initially seemed little inclined to support hospitals, medical workers and the health industry to cope with the consequences of COVID-19. By the looks of it, it’s mainly the OEMs headquartered in a highly affected country that are starting to do something for the community – or at least communicate about it. In any case, their efforts - however uncoordinated and local they might be - are welcomed and hopefully inspire others to do their part as well.

The first OEM to speak out was FCA. Italy being the country with the most victims and the highest need for support and FCA playing an important societal role as one of the country’s largest employers, it only seems logical they should do something. On March 19, the Italian carmaker said it was in talks, together with Ferrari and Magneti Marelli, with the nation’s biggest ventilator manufacturer (Siare Engineering) to help boost the production from just 160 machines per month today to 500 in a few months’ time.

Now that France sees the COVID-19 numbers rise dramatically, PSA is making great efforts in collaboration with Valeo and Schneider Electric to help Air Liquide Medical Systems increase ventilator production by building components. By the middle of May, some 10,000 units should be produced.  

In Spain, Renault workers are using 3D printers to manufacture visors for health workers from home. SEAT has converted part of its Leon factory in Martorell to produce simplified automated ventilators using windscreen wiper motors, gearbox shafts and gearbox housings. The ventilators were designed by a team of engineers and are now undergoing final testing before approval is given for mass production.

In Belgium, the Audi factory is working together with the Brussels VUB University to develop a similar solution. A prototype developed by the university’s FabLab robotics division is currently being assessed for approval and could already be built by Audi later this week. Support is also given by Volvo's Ghent factory, even though not officially so. It goes without saying that these devices are less advanced than conventional ventilators, but they are able to do the job for patients who need assistance in breathing but are not in the most critical of conditions.

In Czech Republic, Skoda is teaming up with the Czech Institute of Informatics, Robotics and Cybernetics (CIIRC) at the Czech Technical University in Prague to apply 3D printing in the production of reusable FFP3 respirators. Following certification, the Czech Ministry of Health is now distributing these to doctors, hospitals and nursing staff.

In Germany, Mercedes-Benz has openly offered its support to the medical industry. They say they can help produce individual components that are urgently needed in medical technology through 3D printing. Mercedes-Benz already uses 3D printing machines to produce up to 150,000 plastic and metal components every year. This capacity can now be fully utilized for medical purposes, the OEM says.

In the UK, Jaguar Land Rover is not producing medical equipment, but it puts 57 vehicles including 27 New Defenders from the press fleet into service with the British Red Cross to deliver medicine and food to vulnerable people including the elderly. Protective equipment is being donated to the NHS including wraparound safety glasses to hospitals across the country to protect health service staff. The British OEM is also supporting the Red Cross Society in Australia, Spain, South Africa and France with more vehicles to be deployed in the UK and other countries shortly.

Photo credit: VUB, 2020


Authored by: Dieter Quartier