electronics assembly line

Manufacturing isn’t an industry that’s known for being able to change on a dime. 

Assembly lines are a highly choreographed ballet of interactions between people, processes, tools, machines and materials. It’s difficult to change the system without creating quality errors or productivity issues, which means the time to introduce new products or lines is measured in months and years.

Nevertheless, manufacturers across North America are rallying to produce and deliver much needed medical supplies to healthcare workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 response. And they’re demonstrating unprecedented agility and ingenuity as they do so. 

Here are a few examples from the news.

GM turns gutted, shuttered Warren plant into face mask supplier


GM and the UAW have rapidly opened the doors on a closed plant to make much needed face masks. To quote the article, “In just seven days, at 2:30 p.m. on March 27, GM’s first prototype mask rolled off the line on equipment that did not exist before.” That’s a pretty remarkable feat.

Top takeaways: 

  • In just seven days GM, in coordination with JR Automation, cleared a 31,000 square foot facility and designed custom equipment to begin production. 
  • The shuttered Warren Transmission plant started work on Monday, April 8th with “at least two dozen paid volunteers” to make “millions of face masks.” 
  • GM expects to produce 20,000 masks in its first run, and scale up to 50,000 masks a day to offset the shortage, and has brought on more than 30 engineers, designers, buyers and manufacturing team members to develop the product and source the needed materials.

Key quotes:

“In a few days, the company’s seat belt and interior trim experts became experts in manufacturing face masks.” – Karsen Garbe, GM Plant Director of Global-Preproduction operations

“Not only did the team make their goal, but they over-delivered. They actually beat our deadline, running the first mask through the equipment 30 minutes ahead of target.” – Peter Thom, GM’s vice president of Global Manufacturing Engineering 

Boeing fights coronavirus, will produce face shields for health care workers


Boeing announced that it will manufacture protective face shields for U.S. health care workers as hospitals around the country report a shortage of personal protective equipment.

Top takeaways:

  • Harnessing 3-D printing machines in Missouri, California, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Alabama, Boeing expects to be able to produce 1,000 face shields a day on the initial run, and increase production from there. 
  • The shields are developed by a combination of employees from their Boeing Additive Manufacturing, Boeing Research & Technology, Boeing Defense, Space & Security, Supply Chain, and HorizonX, along with support from Accenture, hospitals and universities. 

In addition, the Boeing Company has announced that they are making the Dreamlifter, one of the largest cargo carriers in the world, available to transport critical quantities of medical supplies to health care professionals. 

Key quote:

“Boeing said it has already donated ‘thousands of masks, gloves and other equipment’ to assist health care workers.”

How the seats in an F-150 helped Ford make ventilators and respirators


Ford has begun making PPE, starting with clear plastic face shields for its own workers and expanding into respirators with 3M and UAW. 

Top takeaways:

  • Ford used parts from its automotive supply to create a PAPR blower for respirators, which are normally specifically sourced and supplied for that model of respirator.
  • Ford is working with a Fla.-based manufacturer, Airon, to increase production of its Model A ventilator from three per day to 500, resulting in 50,000 by the end of July 2020.

Key quotes:

“We’re trying to match the spike of the pandemic. We started (face shield) production and within a week we made over 150,000 of them. Next week our target is 1 million a week.” – Marcy Fisher, director of global body exterior and interior engineering at Ford.

“Clearly, nothing is impossible any more. We can remove the constraints, the roadblocks, and the time lags. This will change us forever.”

It’s gratifying to know that manufacturers are harnessing their collective creativity and manpower to help in this period. This is especially difficult given the simultaneous need to keep people safe on the line — which is introducing many new constraints on ramp-up and line optimization processes.