Ford partners with 3M, GE to make respirators, ventilators and face shields

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

It took less than a week for a group of Ford Motor Co. employees to leverage the Dearborn automaker's manufacturing expertise and legacy of innovation to address the new coronavirus pandemic. Among their tools: seat cooling fans and batteries for cordless drills.

The Blue Oval and a few hundred employees are answering the call to help boost production of life-saving ventilators and much-needed personal protection equipment such as respirators and masks needed by first responders and health care workers girding for surging cases of COVID-19.

Dave Jacek, 3D printing technician, wears a prototype of a 3D-printed medical face shield printed at Ford’s Advanced Manufacturing Center in Redford. Ford Motor Co., joining forces with firms including 3M and GE Healthcare, is expanding production of medical equipment and supplies for healthcare workers, first responders and patients fighting coronavirus.

"We have to be creative and scrappy," Jim Baumbick, Ford's vice president of enterprise product line management, told The Detroit News. "The fundamental challenge is time is the enemy. That's what drove us to think that way. For it to work, we needed to get creative."

The automaker on Tuesday said it had partnered with medical equipment manufacturers — Minnesota-based 3M Co. and Chicago-based GE Healthcare — to scale up production by as much as ten-fold of their powered air-purifying respirators and ventilators respectively. Ford joins its crosstown rivals, General Motors Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, which are taking similar actions.

"One of the things with the auto industry is that it is good at making things at volume with high levels of precision," said David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. "You're putting a variety of different technologies together to create a system — and that system can be in a car, which is an incredibly complex thing, or a breathing apparatus."

Concerns over shortages of ventilators, personal protective equipment for health care workers and more led President Donald Trump on Friday to invoke the Defense Production Act, opening the way for the government to call on private business to help.

By then, Ford already was exploring the possibility of partnering with 3M and GE Healthcare. Inspired by the work of Ford, GM and the Chrysler Corp. to power Detroit's "Arsenal of Democracy" during World War II, Baumbick said, a group of Ford employees floated their idea and kicked off discussions with health care officials, equipment manufacturers and the White House's medical consultant.

The effort — code-named "Apollo 13" — installed Ford engineers inside 3M and GE plants to unleash the full potential of their assembly lines that were not built with mass volumes in mind, Baumbick said. This ramp-up is taking place over the days and weeks ahead.

A filtration system design for a respirator shows the use of fan to cool seats in Ford Motor Co.'s F-150 pickups.

This work includes opening supply channels, simplifying the devices to their basic elements and identifying high-volume components to use such as the already-available fans for cooling seats in F-150 pickups — parts that are in greater stock because the company has suspended production in North America amid the outbreak.

"What we're trying to get online is very purpose-built to get through this crisis," Baumbick said.

Respirators filter the air for health care workers and last longer than the N95 face masks, said Mike Kesti, global technical director of 3M's personal safety division. The target is to have the devices Ford is designing with 3M to last up to eight hours. Ventilators, meanwhile, help patients of the COVID-19 respiratory illness to breathe in severe cases.

"We are confident this partnership will make a meaningful difference in the days and weeks to comes," Kesti said during a conference call. "We’re trying to be resourceful, agile and creative on how to make this work and build capacity."

Eventually, Ford says it could build these simplified versions in its Michigan manufacturing facilities with the help of United Auto Workers-represented employees. The company hopes to start testing soon and then seek approval for the appropriate processes from federal regulators — one of the largest challenges in accomplishing these goals, said Glenn Stevens, executive director of MICHauto, the Detroit Regional Chamber's automotive division.

"The auto industry has extremely tight safety and material and manufacturing specifications — the tightest of anything in the world except perhaps the health care industry," Stevens said.

Meanwhile, the union is on board, said Gerald Kariem, UAW vice president and director of the Ford Department: "UAW Ford members have a history of working together for the good of our Nation. We look forward to collaborating with Ford so that once again UAW members can find ways to improve the health and safety of all Americans during this national emergency."

Operators and assemblers assemble medical face shields. Ford Motor Company, in cooperation with the UAW, will assemble more than 100,000 critically needed plastic face shields per week at a Ford manufacturing site to help medical professionals, factory workers and store clerks.

Ford already is testing 1,000 face shields at Detroit Mercy, Henry Ford Health System and the Detroit Medical Center's Sinai-Grace Hospital. It plans to complete roughly 75,000 of these shields this week and produce more than 1,000,000 per week at Ford subsidiary Troy Design and Manufacturing in Plymouth.

The face shields fully block the face and eyes from accidental contact with liquids, and can further limit exposure to the virus with N95 masks. Ford has received counsel from the FDA on the shields' deployment, Baumbick said.

Additionally, 3D printers at the automaker's Advanced Manufacturing Center in Redford Township will produce disposable respirators. Following regulatory approval of them, Ford intends to make 1,000 respirators per month and grow that production as fast as possible.

The companies are working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other groups to disseminate the supplies and devices, the companies said.

"We continue to work with associations, government agencies and stakeholders," said Tom Westrick, vice president and chief quality officer for GE Healthcare. "We are overwhelmed with the offers to help and the technical expertise from companies like Ford to urgently support all of our needs."

Ford also is reacquiring 165,000 N95 respirators from China that the company had sent there earlier in the year and has committed to providing the Henry Ford Health System with 40,000 surgical masks. The automaker is evaluating a separate effort not involving GE Healthcare with the U.K. government to produce additional ventilators.

And the Blue Oval is in communication with GM to ensure the competitors do not duplicate efforts. The Detroit automaker on Monday said it was looking at the feasibility of making ventilators at its Kokomo Operations in Indiana. It is assisting Washington-based Ventec Life Systems to ramp up production, and its suppliers who have been tapped in the effort say the collaboration is looking to produce up to 200,000 ventilators. 

"It's a new culture that's emerging," Cole said of the partnerships that parallel the industry's evolving collaboration between automakers and tech companies to transform the industry with electrification and self-driving technology.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV also intends to make face masks at a plant in China for first responders and health care workers in North America. Production capability is being installed this week, and it hopes to start producing 1 million masks per month in the coming weeks. FCA also is assisting Siare Engineering Italian Group increase ventilator production in Italy.

Manufacturers across Michigan have reached out about the automakers' efforts to see if they can help, Stevens said.

"It's surprising in its scope, but it's not because it's part of our DNA," he said. "We know how to innovate and design and manufacture for over 120 years. We did it for the Arsenal of Democracy. What's were doing right now to support what's becoming known as the 'Arsenal of Health.' I would expect Michiganders to rise to the situation."

Ahead of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called upon the automakers to make bomber planes, tanks and trucks for the military that had been depleted after World War I. In six months, many of their plants had been retooled for war production. And by 1944, Ford could produce one plane an hour compared to the month it previously took by reducing the parts needed.

"It was apparent the only part of this country that could upgrade their production and bring us to the point was Detroit and the auto industry," said Dennis Norton, president of the Yankee Air Museum Foundation. "Detroit literally saved the country in World War II. And maybe they're doing that again."

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble