How Detroit automakers are creating a new 'arsenal of health' to cope with growing coronavirus pandemic
- Automakers are assisting where they can to produce life-saving respirators, ventilators and masks to assist those infected by the disease as well as health-care workers on the frontlines.
- The efforts come nearly 80 years after the Detroit automakers responded to President Franklin Roosevelt's call to arms during World War II.
- Ford's COVID-19 efforts are codenamed "Project Apollo," while General Motors' are being called "Project V" and "Project M."
Within days, Pat Tucker went from producing car parts for Ford Motor to assembling transparent face shields to assist health-care workers during the coronavirus pandemic.
The 55-year-old grandmother has been working 12-hour shifts every day for nearly two weeks to build the much-needed medical supplies at a Ford subsidiary facility in Plymouth, Michigan.
"I want to help end this. I want to be here to watch my grandchildren grow up and graduate and get married, and I want them to be able to grow up," she told CNBC Thursday night. "I enjoy helping people."
Tucker, a member of United Auto Workers union, leaves her home at about 4:30 a.m. to get to the facility by 5:30 a.m. to begin producing the shields. She typically works until 6:30 p.m. and then takes special precautions of washing herself and her clothing before interacting with her family, including one of her six grandchildren who lives with her, in suburban Detroit.
"I think it's making a difference," she said. "I think it's really been going great. We're getting better and better at it."
Ford's expectations were initially to produce 100,000 face shields a week. That has since grown to 750,000 a week. The work is being done by about 260 paid volunteer Ford workers on two shifts.
'Arsenal of health'
Tucker is one of hundreds, potentially growing to thousands, of auto workers assisting the Detroit automakers in creating a new "arsenal of health" amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The efforts come nearly 80 years after the companies responded to President Franklin Roosevelt's call to arms in December 1940 to create an "Arsenal of Democracy" during World War II.
Ford's COVID-19 efforts are codenamed "Project Apollo." General Motors is executing "Project V" and "Project M." Fiat Chrysler didn't codename its efforts but is assisting in feeding American children and making supplies during the outbreak.
While the efforts differ from building tanks, planes and other wartime artillery, the automakers and employees such as Tucker are assisting where they can to produce life-saving respirators, ventilators and masks to assist those infected by the disease as well as health-care workers on the frontlines.
"That's why the auto industry is kind of unique with its ability to rapidly respond to these kind of things," said Fred Hubacker, a managing partner of Conway MacKenzie. "They have the technical expertise and the ability to mobilize component production facilities very, very quickly."
The consulting firm last month called on automakers and parts suppliers to assist in creating an "arsenal of health" to defend against the coronavirus.
For the "Arsenal of Democracy" during World War II, the U.S. auto industry didn't produce a single civilian passenger car from Feb. 10, 1942 to Sept. 9, 1945. Instead, according to GM's historical unit, production included: 119 million artillery shells; 206,000 aircraft engines; 13,000 Navy fighter planes and torpedo bombers; and 38,000 tanks and tank destroyers, among other things.
Ford announced plans with GE Healthcare this week to produce 50,000 ventilators by early July at a facility in Michigan. That's in addition to a previous pledge to assist GE in expanding production of a different ventilator by 40% and partnering with 3M to manufacture air-purifying respirators.
The automaker is even attempting to use off-the-shelf parts like fans from the Ford F-150's cooled seats for airflow, 3M HEPA air filters to filter airborne contaminants and portable tool battery packs to power respirators for up to eight hours.
Ford says it has already shipped hundreds of thousands of protective face shields to hospitals across the country.
"Thank you, Ford," reads a whiteboard sign of employees at a hospital in Michigan wearing the face shields in a photo that was posted on social media by a Ford employee.
Ford's COVID-19 efforts are internally being called "Project Apollo," a reference to the Apollo 13 launch in 1970 when astronauts on the fly had to improvise a fix after an oxygen tank failed during the mission.
GM this week started prototyping its production process of face masks at a facility in suburban Detroit. About two dozen paid, volunteer hourly union workers are expected to begin producing masks for distribution next week.
The automaker expects to deliver the first 20,000 masks to frontline workers by the end of next week. It eventually expects to build up to 50,000 masks every day – or up to 1.5 million masks a month.
The face masks, codenamed "Project M," are in addition to the Detroit automaker partnering with Ventec Life Systems to build critical-care ventilators at one of its components plants in Indiana.
Production of the ventilators, known as "Project V," is expected to begin as soon as possible, with shipments starting as soon as next month, according to GM.
The Ventec and GM global supply base developed sourcing plans for the more than 700 individual parts that are needed to build up to 200,000 of the ventilators, known as VOCSN, according to GM.
"We are proud to stand with other American companies and our skilled employees to meet the needs of this global pandemic," GM CEO and Chairman Mary Barra said in a statement.
Feeding kids in need
In addition to announced plans to make face masks, Fiat Chrysler is assisting nonprofit organizations and foundations with providing food to children until schools return to session.
Last week, it said it would help provide more than 1 million meals to school-age children in the communities around its principal manufacturing plants in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.
"There has never been a more important moment to help children and their families with vital needs in our communities than during this time of great uncertainty," Fiat Chrysler CEO Mike Manley said in a statement.
The program will then be extended nationwide in the U.S. and to Canada and Mexico, supporting similar relief efforts for kids who would normally access school meal services, according to the company.
It's not just the American-based automakers that are contributing to America's COVID-19 efforts.
For example, Toyota Motor is providing support to many local organizations and nonprofits in Texas, home of its North American operations, and elsewhere. The efforts include monetary, "in-kind" donations, plus utilizing facilities to fabricate face shields using 3-D printers and seeking partnerships to build ventilators and respirators.
In Michigan and Tennessee, Nissan Motor also is producing 3-D printed headbands for protective face shields to donate to health-care workers.
Volkswagen, in partnership with auto supplier Faurecia, announced Friday an effort to manufacture personal protective equipment such as medical grade face masks and gowns. The first shipment of 70,000 masks and 5,000 gowns are expected to be distributed to New York area hospitals this week, the automaker said.