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Detroit's auto industry steps up against COVID-19

Breana Noble Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Pat Tucker could have waited it out when Ford Motor Co. shut down North American manufacturing. Instead, she's helping to make thousands of face shields a day for health care workers and first responders.

"If it’s to help, then I’m in," the 55-year-old employee of Ford subsidiary, Troy Design & Manufacturing Co. in Plymouth, recalled saying when asked about the opportunity. "Because something has got to be done. We are working 12 hours a day now. The more we can get out the better. We have so many people emailing and needing them. We are shipping all day."

Pat Tucker, 55, of Roseville makes face shields at the Troy Design Manufacturing facility in Plymouth, Michigan. Tucker has worked at the Ford Motor Co. subsidiary plant for nine years. When she got the call to make face shields for front-line workers fighting COVID-19, she quickly said yes. Paid volunteers like Tucker made 500,000 shields in a weekÕs time.

Hundreds of autoworkers and engineers and thousands of global suppliers are answering the call for help with remarkable speed in an effort becoming known as the "Arsenal of Health," a reference to Detroit's military production surge during World War II.

► RELATED REPORT:  GM launches training for 1,000 to make ventilators to wage COVID-19 fight

► RELATED REPORT:  GM to deliver first 20K face masks next week, ramp to 1.5 million per month

► RELATED REPORT:  Ford will build respirators at Flat Rock Assembly, UAW says

► RELATED REPORT: Fiat Chrysler to make face masks for U.S. health-care workers

In a matter of days to weeks, Detroit's three automakers and key suppliers have gone from producing parts and vehicles to preparing facilities to make equipment desperately needed to save lives of severely sick patients and protect front-line workers combating the COVID-19 pandemic.

General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra told the company task force created for the effort: "Every day we slow down is a day someone's life is at risk," Shilpan Amin, GM's vice president of global purchasing and supply chain, recalled from the meeting. "We didn't have any experience in doing this. In our minds, we didn't know it couldn't be done, so we made it happen."

Scaling up

The pace of progress is unlike anything Troy Design President Todd Jaranowski, a more than 30-year Ford veteran, has seen. The face shield project took over 200,000 square feet of the Plymouth facility on Tuesday, March 24.

"We ran like 1,000 units and then ramped up to 4,000," Jaranowski said, "and then by Thursday, we ran 25,000."

Elastic for the shields' head bands were in short supply from the start. But a Ford supplier, which the company declined to name, opened its doors and its parts bins at 4 a.m. to provide weather stripping to supplement, Howard Lew, Ford vehicle components and system engineering strategy and initiatives manager, said in a statement.

The electric staplers being used, however, weren't cutting through the rubber tube. But Ford found a non-latex rubber band that worked, and it made a "very automotive request to a very un-automotive supplier" to provide 200,000 bands in about 48 hours, Lew said. The supplier had them ready in 26.

Meanwhile, Doug Randlett, Troy Design engineering supervisor, learned something: instead of stapling the weather stripping to the shields, the company could use common push pins used all over vehicles to fasten parts.

"Doug hit such a grand slam we named it 'The Dougie,'" Lew said. "We had three viable designs for the face shield. ... Based on available supply, it looked like we had design solutions that could be produced anywhere in the world if needed."

Pat Tucker, 55, of Roseville makes face shields at the Troy Design Manufacturing facility in Plymouth.

Now, about 1.2 million face shields have been shipped to medical workers across the country to Detroit, California, Florida and New York. The goal is to make 1 million a week — but, Jaranowski said, there's demand for 9 million.

Likewise, the United States needs ventilators, devices that help patients with the respiratory illness to breathe in severe cases. In mid-March, the Society of Critical Care Medicine estimated that 960,000 U.S. COVID-19 patients would need ventilators with only about 200,000 available. Medical equipment manufacturers are scampering to increase production exponentially.

"The biggest challenge is taking a product that just over two a day is made or 10 a week and scaling that to over 7,000 a week in the future as we ramp up," said Adrian Price, director of Ford's global manufacturing core engineering division.

The Blue Oval plans to produce by Independence Day 50,000 copies of Florida-based Airon Corp.'s simple, approximately $7,000 air-powered ventilator at its Rawsonville Components Plant in Ypsilanti. Ford will provide the devices to GE Healthcare.

The request echoes the historic "Arsenal of Democracy" transformation by GM, Ford and Chrysler Corp. during World War II when they converted plants to make bombers, tanks and trucks. They simplified the machines and put assembly lines to work. Instead of taking one month to build one plane, Ford by 1944 was making one per hour at its Willow Run plant. In the 1940s, Ford also developed a portable baby incubator and an "iron lung" for polio patients.

Ford's Airon ventilator project is part of the Trump administration's goal of producing 100,000 ventilators in 100 days. President Donald Trump also called on GM to contribute, last month taking action under the Korean War-era Defense Production Act. He signed a presidential memorandum ordering GM to make ventilators for the government — despite the Detroit automaker hours earlier saying it was moving forward with building the devices for Washington-based Ventec Life Systems at its Kokomo Operations electric components plant in Indiana.

“We could not be prouder of the UAW members that have volunteered to make such a difference at this critical time in our history," UAW Vice President Gerald Kariem said in a statement. "These UAW Ford Members have sacrificed beyond themselves for all of us."

Trump later changed his tone, saying GM was doing a "fantastic job." But the automakers' efforts began well before the president called upon the companies to help.

GM will hand off control to Ventec to continue manufacturing ventilators in Kokomo, Indiana, along with continued expanded production at Ventec’s headquarters in Bothell, Washington.

'Project V'

On March 17, GM's Barra took a phone call from Kenneth Chenault, a former American Express Co. CEO who founded StoptheSpread.org to activate companies to help combat COVID-19. Their chat led to a conversation with Ventec the next day. On Thursday, a GM team flew to Seattle to figure out how to boost Ventec's production from a couple hundred to several thousand a month.

By the evening of March 20, GM had organized a conference call with its suppliers to ask for their help with an effort dubbed "Project V." Barra tasked Amin's team to determine within 48 hours where all 419 of the ventilator's parts, as well as their thousands of sub-assemblies, could be acquired.

"It was kind of a call to action: Are you in, or are you out?" recalled Dan Kennedy, executive director of sales for Illinois-based Flex-N-Gate, which makes metals, plastics and other parts for GM. He texted the company's executives: "'You can't imagine the call I am on right now.' Literally within seconds, they were responding, 'We're in.' You don't know what you are in for, you just know we are in."

Engineers and technicians set-up and test the machines that will be used to manufacture Level 1 face masks March 30 at the General Motors Warren manufacturing facility.

Ventec had FedExed one of its devices to Michigan. GM disassembled it, laying the pieces on a conference room table inside the idled Warren Transmission Plant. The company disinfected the space between teams of suppliers — each donning masks and gloves — taking photos and measuring the parts to determine what the companies could make. 

Each of GM's 120-member purchasing team became the "CEO" of at least one part with the responsibility for coordinating manufacturing, logistics and quality, Amin said. Some were more complex: One circuit board has 1,200 components sourced from companies in India and Malaysia, deep in the supply chain.

"These are where one of the biggest bottlenecks are happening," Amin said. "We built incremental capacity based on our suppliers' capabilities, and it starts opening the doors across the ventilator production industry."

After 48 hours, 95% of the parts were sourced. The last 5% was secured by the early afternoon the following day. Starting this week, Flex-N-Gate will begin manufacturing seven injection molds for each device in Grand Rapids with its presses. Illinois-based Tenneco Inc.'s headlights wire harnesses will power fans in the ventilators; it sent sample parts to Kokomo on Wednesday.

"It's been a blur," said Mike Bugbee, Tenneco's global customer director for GM and lighting product line general manager. "That fast decision-making, decisiveness is what really got us here."

GM last week began training the 1,000 paid volunteers in Kokomo who eventually will build 10,000 of the devices per month with shipments starting in mid-April.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV's efforts have focused on Italy, the country that has seen the most deaths from the virus to date. In addition to helping Italian ventilator manufacturer Siare Engineering International Group increase production, it is making electrovalves — the beating "heart" of the devices — at its engine plant in Cento, Italy. The automaker also plans to make and donate face masks at a plant in China for health care workers and first responders.

GM, too, is making masks at its former Warren Transmission Plant. Rob Portugaise, the company's executive director of global manufacturing engineering, on March 21 received a text message during an oil change about the possibility of making the masks at the shuttered plant one day after a team had formed to start the project.

General Motors Co.'s Robert Portugaise, executive director of global manufacturing engineering, sets up and tests the machines that will be used to manufacture Level 1 face masks March 29 at the former Warren Transmission Plant.

“That afternoon, we had people in the plant disconnecting some of the equipment,” he said. Setting up new production typically would take up to six months, but paid volunteers began making masks by the following Friday. The team will deliver 20,000 this week on its way to making 50,000 per day.

“Everybody has their stories of why they want to be a part of this,” Portugaise said. “I have a daughter who works in a seniors’ home in Kalamazoo, and they don’t have masks.

"Everybody has their own desire, but there is a real common passion around getting these out to front-line workers as quick as we can and as much as we can.”

bnoble@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble

khall@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bykaleahall