Detroit’s General Motors Co. today announced in response to COVID-19 it launched a rapid-response project on Friday, March 20 to produce masks at scale. The team had a sample on the new production line a week later, and by next week, the company expects to deliver its first 20,000 masks to frontline workers.
Without help from GM’s partners around the world, the project would have taken months.
“Our team began looking at ways we could quickly utilize our talents and resources to help in the shared fight against COVID-19,” says Peter Thom, vice president of global manufacturing engineering at GM. “Working around the clock, our team rallied with incredible passion and focus to come up with a plan to produce masks that will help protect the women and men on the front lines of this crisis.”
More than 30 engineers, designers, buyers, and members of the manufacturing team were asked to help with product development, sourcing materials and equipment, and planning the production process.
“The first people we called were those who work with fabric vehicle components,” says Karsten Garbe, plant director of global pre-production operations at GM. “In a few days, the company’s seat belt and interior trim experts became experts in manufacturing face masks.”
The team sourced the raw materials including metal nose pieces, elastic straps, and blown, non-woven fabric filter material, by leveraging GM’s existing supply chain. GM also worked with JR Automation in Holland, Mich. and Esys Automation in Auburn Hills to design and build the custom machinery needed to assemble the masks.
GM approached JR Automation on Saturday, March 21, and JR designed plans based on readily available parts, releasing them for build. Its engineering and build teams in Holland and Nashville provided input, and its in-house machining and fabrication department designed and built customized machinery to assemble the masks. Its controls and mechanical engineering teams worked with the supply chain team to secure all components.
Builders at Esys Automation assembled the components, delivering the first equipment to GM Friday morning, the same day GM produced its first mask. Esys is a JR company.
The ISO Class 8-equivalent cleanroom at GM’s manufacturing plant in Warren was selected for the work, which began with removing existing equipment. The team cleared about 31,000 square feet of space to accommodate the production lines. Crews then installed new electrical service lines to power the production equipment and assembly stations.
Production equipment and materials were then delivered to the Warren facility, and crews installed it and the production line. The team tested each step in the production process to try to find places to improve quality and production speed.
“Not only did the team make their goal, but they over-delivered,” says Thom. “They actually beat our deadline, running the first mask through the equipment 30 minutes ahead of target. We’re excited because this means we’re even closer to being able to protect the health care teams who are working tirelessly to save lives.”
By Monday, more than 2,000 masks were produced by teams working through the weekend. These initial test samples will be used to ensure quality standards are met. The team expects to start producing masks for delivery early next week.
GM and the UAW will seek more than two dozen paid workers from Detroit-area plants to staff mask operations. GM has also implemented a series of safety measures to protect these team members through physical distancing, enhanced on-site cleaning, and pre-entry health screening.
The team expects to have 20,000 masks ready for delivery on Wednesday, April 8. Once the line is running at full speed, it will be able to produce up to 50,000 masks every day, or up to 1.5 million masks a month. GM is developing a plan to distribute the masks, including using some masks to protect employees in critical GM operations.
In related news, Reuters reported GM “told suppliers on Monday (March 30) it is postponing work on at least half a dozen future models to conserve cash during the coronavirus pandemic and suggested it could delay the planned launch in late April of its highly profitable large sport utility vehicles.”
While GM had “previously told suppliers that it planned to begin production in late April of the redesigned 2021 Cadillac Escalade, GMC Yukon, Chevrolet Tahoe, and Suburban full-size SUVs at its Arlington, Texas, plant after winding up production of the outgoing models this week, according to an email reviewed by Reuters,” the automaker on Monday confirmed a new email that “said it was suspending development work on six future vehicle programs, including updates of the Chevrolet Equinox, GMC Terrain, Cadillac XT4, Bolt EV, Chevrolet Silverado, and GMC Sierra.”
Reuters adds GM “said preproduction work on those programs would be pushed back to calendar year 2021, with most of the updated vehicles scheduled to be launched as 2022 models.”
In related news, IHS Markit in Southfield Monday announced GM retained its position as the leader in automotive manufacturer loyalty. The awards, now in their 24th year, are given annually.
IHS Markit named winners across 15 categories, including GM for the top award, Overall Loyalty to Manufacturer, with a loyalty rate of 68.9 percent, and Ford brand for Overall Loyalty to Make, with a loyalty rate of 62.3 percent.
Automotive manufacturers and brands were recognized for superior customer retention and conquest efforts during the 2019 calendar year. IHS Markit analysis found that in 2019, with about 17.5 million new vehicle registrations during the calendar year, 54.6 percent of customers returned to market to purchase or lease another new vehicle from the same make they already owned.