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GM's idled Warren Transmission plant finds a new purpose during outbreak

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Warren — The COVID-19 pandemic brought the Warren Transmission plant back from the dead.

Equipment used to make transmissions still stands inside the General Motors Co. factory, but the automaker is no longer making those here. There are still assembly lines, but workers are instead making personal protective equipment including face masks to supply front-line workers and GM employees as automotive factories begin spinning up to full capacity after the coronavirus brought them to a halt.

Quality inspector Chasan Karadsheh examines a finished face mask made at the formerly idled GM Warren Transmission plant.

GM shut the Warren plant down last August as part of a cost-savings plan that led to the idling of four U.S. plants. The facility that used to make six-speed transmissions has become GM's U.S. mask-making headquarters pumping out 100,000 face masks a day. It's one of several facilities automakers have reworked during the pandemic to create what some have called the Arsenal of Health.

How long the plant keeps its new lease on life is a question that depends on how long the coronavirus remains a threat.

"It’s the famous question I think everyone is asking: 'How long is COVID going to last? Is there going to be a second round? Is it going to get bad this summer or fall?'" said Joe Mizzi, manager of the face mask operation who normally handles global vehicle launches for GM. "It’s hard to say."

A sign at  GM's formerly idled Warren Transmission plant signals the pickup area for face masks for hospitals.

GM no timeline for ending face mask production and no plans yet for the future of the site when masks are no longer needed.

The factory, built in 1941, was one of four U.S. plants GM decided in November 2018 to close. One of those — Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly — got a reprieve during last fall's labor negotiations after GM said it would reinvest there to build several new electric vehicles, include the Hummer EV. The Lordstown Assembly plant in northeast Ohio was sold to Lordstown Motors Corp., an electric vehicle startup. The Baltimore Operations transmission plant remains idled. 

Warren Transmission stayed dark until late March when the need for safety equipment became acute. Paid United Auto Workers hourly employees volunteered to staff the plant, which had been represented by UAW Local 909.

"Clearly that has always been a very a prideful local, and the UAW is very proud of the members that have come back to that plant at some risk to themselves just to do the greater good," UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg said. "We call them our UAW heroes."

To make the operation work, a facility close to Detroit was needed so GM could staff it with volunteers. Warren fit the bill, as it had clean areas needed to make masks. Air is pressurized and filtered.

"That was sort of a no-brainer for us ... the fact that we wanted a clean-room environment (and) we’ve got these rooms that have been closed down. It would be easy to go in and really fire these rooms up," Mizzi said.

"The team we have in place knows how to launch vehicles," he said. "We know how to pull together as one team, and we picked the best of the best to come make this happen."

Nick Sinishyaj, center, gathers finished face masks made at the Warren transmission plant on Thursday, April 23, 2020.

It took about a week of prep before the team was ready. The first mask came off the line on March 27. The plant that shuttered last year is alive again with three shifts operating seven days a week. Face shields also are assembled from parts that are shipped in.   GM eventually plans to make extra-protective N95 masks there.

GM is continuing to donate masks to hospitals, but they are also handed out to GM workers when they go into the Detroit automaker's U.S. facilities, which started reopening the week of May 18. GM's goal, ultimately, is to be self-sufficient with protective equipment. The automaker estimates it will need 2 million masks a month to supply its U.S. facilities. 

"As of this weekend, GM has donated more than 2.4 million face masks to front-line workers, hospitals and non-profit groups," GM President Mark Reuss said in a statement. "In addition, we are producing masks for our own employees working in our facilities, so that reduces the overall demand for masks. We are proud and happy to help any way we can during this global pandemic.”

GM also has mask production facilities in Brazil, Mexico, Canada and China.

The automaker isn't just using its facilities to make protective equipment during the pandemic. It's also making ventilators at its electronic components plant in Kokomo, Indiana. GM, in partnership with ventilator production with Ventec Life Systems, has until August to fulfill a government order for 30,000 ventilators for the Strategic National Stockpile. 

GM will have the capacity at that plant to keep making ventilators after the government order is fulfilled, "but we will have to see what the market demand is," GM spokesman Dan Flores said.

Ford Motor Co. also opened up ventilator and personal protective equipment operations within its facilities. 

Ford subsidiary Troy Design and Manufacturing’s facilities in Plymouth has made and shipped 20 million face shields since late March. Demand has started to wind down, and so has production, but Ford is still ready to provide the shields when needed. The automaker recently created a new website for personal protective equipment orders.

The Dearborn automaker joined forces with GE Healthcare to build ventilators at its Rawsonville Components Plant in Ypsilanti. Ford and its partner are to build 50,000 ventilators by July for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Ford is also making air-purifying respirators, developed with 3M, at its Vreeland facility near Flat Rock. Face masks for Ford's workforce are being made at the Ford Van Dyke Transmission Plant. It's is also making medical gowns in partnership with Joyson Safety Systems.

Kristin Dziczek, a vice president of industry, labor and economics at the Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research, knew months ago that the industry had the manufacturing prowess to make the supplies needed in the fight against the pandemic, which has surpassed 100,000 deaths in the United States.

"The scale and volume and reach of the automotive industry ... there's nothing else like this," she said. "Airplanes are very complex, but how many do they build a day? There's lots of more-complex or as-complex products, but there's nothing that does complexity and volume like auto."

Michelle Heath, quality inspector, Project M, General Motors, examines each face mask made at the Warren transmission plant on Thursday, April 23, 2020.

khall@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bykaleahall