Ford launching new efforts to build respirators, face masks, gowns and COVID-19 test kits

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

In a major scaling up of its effort to produce much-needed medical equipment and protective gear to battle the coronavirus pandemic, Ford Motor Co. on Monday detailed new initiatives to manufacture respirators, face masks, medical gowns and collection kits.

Production of a new powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) that Ford developed with the 3M Co. will start Tuesday at Ford's Vreeland facility near Flat Rock, yet another effort by the automaker to partner with a medical-device maker to scale production of the products.

Ford is leading efforts to manufacture reusable gowns and face masks using their suppliers.

Further, the Dearborn-based automaker said it is producing face masks at its Van Dyke Transmission Plant in Sterling Heights for use by its own workforce; is manufacturing reusable gowns from airbag materials; and is helping scientific instrument provider Thermo Fisher Scientific scale up production of COVID-19 test kits.

The new projects build on weeks of efforts by Ford, along with competitors General Motors Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, to meet overwhelming demand for supplies such as respirators, face masks and ventilators for doctors and nurses helping seriously ill patients battle the disease.

With auto production halted last month to suppress the spreading virus, the Detroit Three quickly shifted gears. Within days of shutting down, they had enlisted paid UAW volunteers, leveraged their supply chains, made impromptu connections with hospitals and manufacturing partners, and started churning out and distributing the most in-demand items.

"We knew that to play our part helping combat coronavirus, we had to go like hell and join forces with experts like 3M to expand production of urgently needed medical equipment and supplies," Jim Baumbick, Ford vice president of enterprise product line management, said in a statement. 

In a statement, Gerald Kariem, UAW vice president and director of the union's Ford Department, said UAW-Ford members "continue to step up and volunteer to work during this difficult time" as the union and company expand production at the Vreeland facility and the Van Dyke Transmission Plant.

He added: "The UAW also continues to work with Ford to follow stringent CDC guidelines and go above and beyond protections for these members who are so proudly volunteering to serve their communities and their nation."

Ford for weeks has been helping 3M expand production of its respirators, which include PAPRs and N95 masks. This latest initiative will produce an all-new PAPR that includes a hood and face shield to cover health workers' heads and shoulders. A high-efficiency filter system in the device provides an eight-hour supply of filtered air. 

With the "infusion of fresh energy" from Ford, 3M has been able to double N95 mask production and "push the pace even faster, to get PPE out to the front lines," Mike Kesti, global technical director for 3M's personal safety division said Monday.

Dearborn-based manufacturing industrial engineer Doug Rickert was one of 35 Ford employees who recently traveled to a 3M plant in Aberdeen, South Dakota, to help scale up N95 production. 

Ford first made contact with 3M on March 19; on March 21, Rickert got a call asking him to go to the 3M facility. He arrived there the next day. For the next 18 straight days, he, along with the other Ford team members, worked with 3M employees to develop a production strategy. 

The product was unfamiliar, but the work wasn't. Rickert's job is to identify, and eliminate, production bottlenecks and labor inefficiencies. "It's certainly not like a car or a truck moving down an assembly line," he said, "but it's still a matter of asking questions and trying to deep dive and understand all the different aspects of the manufacturing process."

On the Ford team's way out of town at the end of the assignment, one employee snapped a photo of the scene that bid them farewell — a sign made by 3M workers, propped against a Ford F-150 truck: "Thank you Ford employees. You are heroes."

"The team wasn't really Ford or 3M," Rickert said. "Right away it seemed like one big team working to solve problems for the health care workers, quickly."

Workers at the 3M Co. in Aberdeen, North Dakota made this sign thanking the Ford workers who came to help them scale up production of N95 respirators (Courtesy of Ford Motor Co.)

The new PAPRs will be built by about 90 paid UAW volunteers at the Vreeland facility. The team will be able to produce as many as 100,000 respirators in the next few months, when COVID-19 cases are expected to peak.

Additionally, Ford this week began producing face masks at its Van Dyke Transmission Plant. To start with, about 30 paid UAW volunteers will make the masks, with plans to eventually have 80 workers on the project.

"As we began to produce other medical equipment, such as the PAPR and the ventilators and the face masks and face shields, we realized we have an internal need to protect our people as well," Adrian Price, Ford's director of global core engineering for vehicle manufacturing, said on a call Monday.

Ford is seeking certification so that it can distribute the masks to medical workers. Additionally, Ford worked with Beaumont Health to design a reusable medical gown that it is manufacturing with help from airbag supplier Joyson Safety Systems. The gown, made out of a nylon material that is used to make airbags for Ford vehicles, can be washed up to 50 times.

The company has delivered 5,000 gowns to the hospital. By Sunday, Ford expects to scale up to producing 75,000 gowns per week. By next week, that number is expected to rise to 100,000 per week, with plans for Joyson to cut and sew 1.3 million gowns by July 4.

The automaker is helping Thermo Fisher triple its production of collection kits for COVID-19 tests even as Ford continues to manufacture full-face shields for medical workers. As of Monday, it had produced more than 3 million. Face shield production is now taking place at Ford facilities in Canada, Thailand and with a joint venture partner in India — in addition to shields being built at Ford subsidiary Troy Design and Manufacturing in Plymouth.

Ford also is partnering with GE Healthcare to manufacture ventilators at its Rawsonville Components Plant. Production on those is slated to start April 20. Ford aims to build 50,000 ventilators by July 4.

Ford said Monday that it is "considering a scenario" to restart its manufacturing plants in the second quarter. The automaker expects to continue producing medical equipment and PPE as long as needed. But Ford does not expect that to interfere with auto production, Baumbick said, or to become a new line of business.