MILAN -- Italian automakers Ferrari and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles are in talks with the nation's biggest ventilator manufacturer to help to boost production of the life-saving machines that are urgently needed in the coronavirus crisis, company officials said on Thursday.
Italy is at the epicenter of the pandemic and its government has embarked on a big expansion of the number of intensive care beds, many of which will require ventilators to keep patients alive by taking over breathing functions.
Siare Engineering in northern Italy, where deaths are nearing 3,000 and climbing sharply, is in talks with Fiat Chrysler, Ferrari and Italian partsmaker Marelli to make some parts, source others and to possibly help with the assembly of ventilators.
Gianluca Preziosa, Siare's chief executive, said the two industries share some expertise, with both the ventilator business and automakers relying heavily on electronics as well as pneumatics.
"We are talking to Fiat Chrysler, Ferrari and Marelli to try to understand if they can lend us a hand in this process for the electronics part," he told Reuters.
Rome has asked Siare to ramp up its monthly production of ventilators from 160 to 500 after the virus crisis has left the country's healthcare system in acute distress, Preziosa said.
A spokesman for Exor, parent of both FCA and Ferrari, said that meetings with Siare had taken place on Thursday to study the feasibility of the idea.
He said that two main options were being considered: either to help Siare engineer a capacity increase at its plant, with the support of technicians provided by FCA and Ferrari, or outsource production of ventilator parts to the automakers' facilities.
A source familiar with the matter said that Ferrari would be ready to start manufacturing ventilator parts in its Maranello headquarters, which is close to the Siare factory, but that the luxury automaker had yet to make a final decision.
Siare's Preziosa said that another advantage of partnering with automakers was their purchasing power, making them more likely to obtain parts that his small company which is struggling to secure components amid coronavirus-related disruption to global supply chains.
Ventilators, which move air in and out of the lungs, could be the difference between life and death for coronavirus patients suffering breathing difficulties.
But getting new production up to speed will not be easy, some in the manufacturing industry said.
“Precision milling and 3D printing techniques could help manufacture complex parts," said Rene-Christopher Wollmann, program and platform director at Automobili Pininfarina, which uses virtual design software to build electric hypercars.
"But this depends on how much know-how existing manufacturers (of ventilators) are prepared to share about the design of such a machine," he added. "Another bottleneck will be assembling such machines under conditions which are adequate for the medical industry."
The idea of using automakers to supply medical equipment got started in China, where electric car maker BYD earlier this month began turning out 5 million face masks and 300,000 bottles of hand sanitizer a day. The Shenzhen-based automaker is backed by U.S. investor Warren Buffett.
Since then the idea has spread to other industries and countries.
European aerospace group Airbus is working across its processes to see if its 3D printing or production facilities can be of use.
"The aim is for there to be a (ventilator) prototype in two weeks and for manufacturing to start in four weeks," one person familiar with the situation at the company said.
In the United States, the federal government is in talks with Detroit auto giants General Motors and Ford about how they can help expand ventilator production, the companies and White House officials said on Wednesday.