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Rochester Hills' Prefix Corp. retools from race engines to face shields

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Before the COVID-19 crisis, Rochester Hills-based Prefix Corp. was looking forward to making race engines this spring for the Detroit Grand Prix Trans Am support races.

Instead, it’s making medical devices for first responders, hospitals and other businesses.

The 40-year-old firm is evidence that America's massive "Arsenal of Health" mobilization to fight World War C has swept up Metro Detroit firms big and small. In addition to automotive giants like General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co., pandemic demand has transformed Prefix's plants in Rochester Hills and Auburn Hills from making engines and auto prototypes into assembly lines for face shields and face masks. It's even making "foot pulls" that allow doors to be opened hands-free, thereby eliminating the necessity to touch potentially contaminated door hardware.

Carol Pennington and Robert Guilloz, in background, work on protective face shields at Prefix Corp., a Rochester Hills-based supplier of race engines that has transformed itself into make protective equipment for first responders, hospitals and other businesses.

“We’ve always been considered a solutions company,” Prefix Vice President Jhan Dolphin said. “We’ve prided ourselves in being able to meet unusual challenges with often very unrealistic deadlines. So when the world changed rapidly as this COVID-19 issue happened, we had people within the organization that said, ‘Hey, I’m not going home. What can we do to make a difference?’”

Innovation and quick turnarounds for years have made Prefix a go-to company for automakers and performance customers. That ability — and its access to materials, suppliers and technology — allowed it to turn pivot quickly.

Prefix retooled to make critical devices in March, and by April 12 had already delivered 50,000 face shields.

John Campbell works on a protective face shield at Prefix Corp., a supplier of race engines that has transformed itself into make protective equipment for first responders, hospitals and other businesses.

“We’re the company that OEMs come to, whether it's automotive or aviation or other industries when they want that first design — that new product to be built for the first time,” said Dolphin. “It’s a very unique operation, there are very few companies in the world that do what we do."

The nimble capabilities have been seen across the auto manufacturing world among household names including GM, which has transformed its Warren Transmission plant to make face masks, and its Kokomo operations in Indiana to make ventilators. In Mexico, Volkswagen has partnered with supplier Faurecia to produce hundreds of masks and gowns for hard-hit communities like New York City. And in England, Mercedes-Benz's high-performance AMG division is delivering CPAP devices to British patients.

Prefix may not be a household name to consumers. But Prefix’s big Auburn Hills paint facility paints the Ford GT supercar. Before Dodge discontinued its Dodge Viper, the Prefix plant painted it as well.

So speedy has the Arsenal of Health been in ramping up a mass medical device production that Prefix has struggled to find needed materials. With deliveries by April 25 topping 90,000, the company has been ordering thousands of pounds of plastics and other materials.

“It’s starting to get tough to get certain materials,” said Dolphin. “Elastic, for example, has become somewhat scarce. But our team won’t be told no.”

Janet Stephenson and Janine Kaznowski work on  protective face shields at Prefix, a small manufacturing company producing personal protective equipment in Auburn Hills, Michigan on April 27, 2020.

In addition to supplying critical protective gear for hospitals in Michigan, Illinois and Ohio, as well as sheriff departments, dentist offices and funeral homes, Prefix's contribution to the COVID-19 battle has also been an elixir for Prefix’s employees.

“It's important for them mentally to say 'I’m doing something every day to make a difference,'” said Dolphin. “(They’re) doing something positive to help others. It’s cool to see.”

Working on the lines has been a voluntary decision. Prefix has made sure its work spaces are safe. Task have been spread across its four facilities.

“(We’ve) been able to set up small production facilities and make sure the distancing and cleanliness is kept,” said Dolphin. “People are showing up with ambulances and we’re filling them with face shields so they can be delivered around the area."

Prefix is disappointed that the Detroit Grand Prix has been canceled for 2020. This year the Trans Am series was set to play a significant supporting role to the IndyCar main event – both with professional TA2 races as well as vintage races featuring Trans Am classics driven by legends like Lyn St. James.

In addition to providing the engines for the Chevy, Ford and Dodge muscle cars in the TA2 field, Prefix sponsors the No. 40 Dodge Challenger that won the TA2 title last year with Michigan racer Mark Miller behind the wheel.

“(It’s) a punch in the gut that we can’t do that this year. Being involved with Trans Am has been a big source of pride for us,” said Doplhin. “A lot of us are racers at Prefix. We are big fans of go-fast machines."

Suiting its quick-turn prototyping ability, Prefix has expanded its performance division to so-called restomods: classic cars gutted and updated with modern technology and engines.

Some of that work continues as Prefix engineers work from home. But the same processes — tooling, stamping, water-jet cutting, CAD computers, 3D printing — necessary to build the wheels, interiors and electronics for, say, a concept car are now suited to staying open as an essential business making medical equipment and foot pulls for doors.

As Prefix's regular clients reopen across the country, Dolphin said everybody is ready to get back to its usual work.

"It’s obviously going to take some time," he said. "I have every bit of confidence that it will come back strong."

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.