Ford delivers first shipment of power air-purifying respirators to Seattle hospital

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

Dearborn – Ford Motor Co. continues to produce much-needed medical supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic, even as the automaker and its competitors prepare to shift gears back to producing vehicles in the coming weeks.

Ford on Wednesday said it had delivered its first order of the power air-purifying respirators it built and developed in partnership with the 3M Co., a Saint Paul, Minn.-based personal protective equipment provider. Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, Wash., was the first customer to receive the Ford-built PAPRs.

Ford is leading efforts to manufacture reusable gowns with airbag supplier Joyson Safety Systems.

Further, the automaker said it is now producing 200,000 washable gowns per week, and has shipped more than 400,000 to medical professionals around the world. The state of New Jersey recently ordered 500,000 of the gowns, which are made using materials normally used to make airbags and can be washed up to 50 times.

The updates were just the latest in Ford's weeks-long effort to produce medical and personal protective equipment — including gowns, respirators, face shields, face masks and ventilators — to assist medical professionals and COVID-19 patients.

"Ford could not stand by while health care workers in this country placed their lives on the line to help others without even having proper protection," Jim Baumbick, Ford's vice president of enterprise product line management, said in a statement. "That's why we kicked off an all-out sprint to protect those who are so selflessly helping patients afflicted with this terrible virus."

Meanwhile, General Motors Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV have announced plans to restart North American auto production May 18, after Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home order expires. Ford has not publicly announced a restart date, but it has been part of the discussion with GM, FCA, the state and the UAW.

The shift to restarting auto manufacturing comes as the Detroit Three reported grim financial results for the first quarter of the year, despite losing only about two weeks of production during that time. Those losses are mounting by the day, and results are sure to be even more dire for the second quarter, at least half of which will have been lost due to the shutdown. 

Ford last week reported a first-quarter net loss of $2 billion, and signaled it expects pretax losses of an additional $5 billion in the second quarter. To help mitigate its financial losses, Ford has sought to cut costs and shore up its cash position. 

It has withdrawn guidance for 2020, and stopped paying dividends. The automaker recently raised $8 billion by selling junk bonds, and in March drew down more than $15 billion from two existing credit lines.

GM on Wednesday reported that its net income dropped 86.7% to $294 million in the first quarter of 2020. And FCA on Tuesday reported a net loss of $1.84 billion for the first three months of the year. 

After shuttering most of its North American plants at the end of March, Ford quickly shifted to producing medical equipment. With partner GE Healthcare, Ford has a $336 million government contract to build 50,000 ventilators. The automaker is also producing face masks at its Van Dyke Transmission Plant in Sterling Heights for use by its own workers. And, it has made more than 12 million face shields.

Ford began working with 3M in late March to create the PAPRs. The devices incorporate new and off-the-shelf parts including vehicle ventilator fans and power tool batteries, sourced from more than 10 of Ford's suppliers. The respirators include a hood and face shield to cover the heads and shoulders of those wearing them. And, a high-efficiency filter system supplies filtered air to the wearer for up to eight hours.

The air blower system, which is similar to the fan in Ford F-150 ventilated seats, is powered by a rechargeable, portable battery. The devices are being assembled by 90 paid UAW volunteers at Ford's Vreeland facility near Flat Rock. The team, which to date has made more than 10,000 PAPRs, expects to make as many as 100,000.

In a statement, Steve Schaefer, senior vice president of support services for Virginia Mason, expressed gratitude for the shipment: "This important equipment will help ensure the safety of our patients, doctors, nurses and other members of the Virginia Mason care teams during the COVID-19 pandemic."

Ford and 3M said they will donate any profits they make from sales of the PAPRs to nonprofits responding to COVID-19. The automaker has said that it will continue manufacturing medical equipment and PPE as long as needed.

Twitter: @JGrzelewski