ST. LOUIS (KTVI) — During natural disasters, Anheuser-Busch will switch from producing beer to drinkable water. During the coronavirus pandemic, however, the brewery will distribute bottles of hand sanitizer in the U.S.
Ambev SA also said on Tuesday it will use one of its Brazil beer breweries to produce half a million sanitizer bottles for public hospitals to fight the spread of coronavirus.
The brewing giant joins a list of other companies repurposing their production lines to help fight the pandemic that has so far claimed more than 11,000 lives and sickened 260,000 people globally.
Factories that crank out cars and trucks are looking into making much-needed ventilators. Distilleries intended for whiskey and rum are preparing to turn out hand sanitizers and disinfectants. Sharp Corp., an electronics manufacturer that builds display screens, will start making surgical masks.
But redirecting plants to make completely different products will take a long time and a huge effort—possibly too long for some companies to help with medical gear shortages becoming more acute every day.
“When you are repurposing a factory, it really depends on how similar the new product is to the existing products in your product line,” says Kaitlin Wowak, a professor at the University of Notre Dame who focuses on industrial supply chains. “It’s going to be a substantial pivot to start producing an entirely different item.”
On Friday, President Donald Trump says he invoked the Korean War-era Defense Production Act, which allows the government to marshal the private sector to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. But he did not give examples as to how he was using it.
At a news conference Saturday, Trump singled out GM and Ford among many businesses that have asked to start making medical gear like ventilators, the need for which he says has grown into the hundreds of thousands.
“Nobody’s ever heard of a thing like that. With that being said, General Motors, Ford, so many companies—I had three calls yesterday directly, without having to institute, ‘You will do this’—these companies are making them right now,” Trump said.
Neither automaker, however, currently builds ventilators. GM announced on Friday that it is working with ventilator maker Ventec Life Systems to ramp up production. The automaker says it would help with logistics, purchasing and manufacturing, but stopped short of saying it would make ventilators in its own factories, which have been idled for two weeks after workers, fearful of contagion put pressure on the company.
Crosstown rival Ford—which also suspended factory production along with other automakers operating in North America—confirmed that it was in discussions with the Trump administration about helping, too.
“We’re looking at feasibility,” Ford spokesman T.R. Reid says. “It may be possible, but it’s not you go from [small pickup trucks] one day to ventilators the next. We’re figuring out what is possible now.”
Although the government can steer factories to overcome shortages, makers of heavy goods like cars and trucks can’t just flip a switch and produce something else.
It would be difficult to get ventilator or surgical mask designs, line up parts supplies, and train workers to make them in a short period, says Jorge Alvarado, an engineering professor at Texas A&M University.
Companies also would have to find mask or ventilator manufacturers willing to share knowledge, expertise, and even factory workers to transfer production elsewhere, Alvarado says.
Plus, auto plants generally aren’t clean enough to make medical equipment.
Ford and Rolls-Royce PLC also are working with the British government to see if they can switch over their factories. “We are keen to do whatever we can to help the government and the country at this time and will look to provide any practical help we can,” Rolls-Royce says in a statement.
During World War II, automakers were more easily able to shift to making tanks and planes because they are close relatives of cars and trucks, Alvarado says. Auto factory robots and assembly line equipment aren’t compatible with smaller items such as ventilators, he says.
Other industries may be better equipped to help with the virus. Sharp Corp., for example, says it will start making surgical masks at a plant in central Japan that usually makes displays.
Rum producer Bacardi says its distillery in Puerto Rico has shifted to making ethanol needed to produce hand sanitizer. Small U.S. distilleries such as Eight Oaks Farm in Pennsylvania are converting operations to make alcohol-based disinfectant. It will charge whatever people want to donate.
Luxury giant LVMH and Germany-based Beiersdorf, known for skincare products under Nivea and Coppertone, are preparing to make medical disinfectants in Europe for hospitals, police, and firefighters. French cosmetics giant L’Oreal says it is making sanitizer gel.
Michigan-based office furniture company Steelcase is exploring ways to use its factories to make health care items, studying whether it can make masks and protective equipment or partitions for hospitals.
“This is an extraordinary crisis that necessitates extraordinary measures and actions from both the public and private sectors,” the company said in a statement.
Even though it may take time and a monumental effort to switch factories to medical products, that may have to be done if the virus outbreak lasts for several months or longer, said Notre Dame’s Wowak.
“I think given the circumstance and how critical it is for these surgical masks, ventilators, and gloves, I think there is going to be a lot of organizations, government, private, trying to increase [factory] capacity,” she says. “Maybe the government recognizes how critical of an issue this is.”