Cleveland, Ohio – Ford manufacturing experts are working at 3M and GE Healthcare plants to boost medical device manufacturing as much as 10x to help treat the growing number of COVID-19 patients in the country.
The 3M project will boost production of powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs), devices that use a waste-attached air-filtration unit to pump clean air into an enclosed helmet. The GE project could boost ventilator production.
In both cases, the automaker is sending personnel to GE and 3M plants and raiding its own parts bins for components that might be suitable for the devices.
Jim Baumbick, vice president of Ford’s enterprise product line management, said Ford is calling this Project Apollo, inspired by the failed Apollo 13 lunar mission during which a part failure threatened the lives of the entire crew, but teams at NASA retrofitted existing components to create the critical gear to protect astronauts and get the spaceship safely back to Earth.
In much the same way, 3M sent Ford its bill of materials (BOM) for its PAPRs, and Ford looked for matching devices. The seat-cooling fans available for F-150 pickups, for example, are similar in size, shape, and power output to the ones used to pump air from the PAPR filtration unit to the helmet.
“In some cases, they could be the same exact component, and we can immediately divert the supply we have on hand. In other cases, we may have to make some minor modifications, but we can do that very quickly,” Baumbick said during a conference call with reporter and editors. “I can't express it enough, we’re leveraging a lot of our United Auto Workers (UAW) partners, men and women to actually produce some of these parts and equipment under a very challenging times.”
Mike Kesti, global technical director, 3M Personal Safety Division, said, “Based on the response we had in China and Korea, urged with the progression of what we’re seeing here, we have targeted to increase production by a factor of 10.”
Baumbick added that Ford has no immediate plans to build PAPR devices in its own plants, but it can support 3M’s efforts with suppliers and expertise. The automaker is studying how it can produce some medical gear at idled automotive plants, but those investigations are in the early talking stages.
Ford is using some of the same reverse-engineering and parts-bin raiding procedures it’s using with 3M to help GE Healthcare boost production of ventilators. Ford engineers are on site at GE plants identifying production bottlenecks and looking for ways it can apply its expertise, equipment, and excess capacity to help.
Tom Westrick, vice president and chief quality officer, GE Healthcare, said, “We're very encouraged how quickly our two companies from different industries have come together to address this growing global challenge... Specifically, we're proud to bring our clinical and our technical expertise to this collaboration with Ford with the goal of rapidly expanding production of a more simplified ventilator than we produce.”
Westrick added that in the short term, GE is informing hospitals that many of its anesthesia systems have ventilating capabilities, so healthcare workers can adapt those for breathing support. He added, “We have a global installed base over 100,000 of these devices that can provide immediate assistance in the global demand for ventilators.
Face mask production
While high-tech partnerships to boost respirator and ventilator production ramp up, Ford’s first foray into medical equipment manufacturing to help fight the COVID-19 outbreak is decidedly low-tech.
Workers at Ford subsidiary Troy Design Manufacturing outside of Detroit are assembling transparent plastic face shields for hospital employees, factory workers, food-service personnel, and other essential employees who continue working through the coronavirus pandemic.
Face shields are simple plastic screens. They don’t filter breathing for the users, but they block immediate fluid transfers from people coughing. When used with advanced face masks, they can prevent spread of viruses.
Baumbick said the company is working on higher-tech products, but it’s also looking at projects that offer the quickest amounts of help to front-line workers.
“While we're talking a lot about trying to increase power air purifying respirators, we're also looking at how to develop other elements of protection for these workers, and the inspiration of these are very basic,” Baumbick said. “Plastic shields, if you think about the three primary entry points into the body of the virus being the nose, the mouth, and the eyes, how do we actually provide levels of protection? We’ve moved very quickly to work with an open-source design, refine it, and quickly scale up where we’re going to get many of those units into operation.”
The masks are simple devices – clear plastic sheets with a foam-rubber pad at the top and an elastic headband. People can easily construct such devices at home with no tools other than a stapler. However, a video showing production in Troy shows how automotive assembly techniques can speed productivity and repeatability.
Rather than just freehand attaching the foam-rubber pad to the plastic sheet, Ford workers use a wooden fixture to hold the sheet in place and ensure proper placement of the pad. The simple, standard automotive production technique eliminates imprecise hand alignment, allowing workers to attach sheets much more quickly.
Electric staplers at the work stations sit next to the wooden fixtures, so after workers attach the rubber pad, they line up the elastic band and put one staple at both ends to attach that to the mask. Workers then stack the units carefully on sheets, allowing easy packaging for delivery to hospitals. Again, nothing high-tech, just standard automotive assembly techniques used to get simple devices produced quickly.
Ford is also working with Stratasys, EOS, and other additive manufacturing companies to print face shield brackets, but company officials say those are exploratory efforts that might support production later. In the short term, the simple peel-and-stick foam pads and stapled head straps will be the primary techniques for mask production.
Ford’s announcements of the 3M, GE, and face mask projects came after General Motors (GM) announced plans to support Ventec Life Systems ventilator production andFiat Chrysler Automobiles’ (FCA’s) program to build face masks.
Baumbick said automakers are talking to each other as well as health care providers to ensure that they’re not duplicating efforts, hoping to choose different ways to boost supplies of needed gear.
“We’re absolutely talking to our partners at GM and trying to figure out how we can make sure that all efforts are working in parallel,” Baumbick said. “We have active discussions around how we can help each other on our respective projects, so that dialogue is open. Sharing is happening so that the cumulative effects are being felt, and they’re not actually working cross purposes.”
As the crisis expands, Ford and GE Healthcare officials say they’ve been inundated with calls from suppliers and smaller manufacturers looking to help out. Editors at GIE Media’s manufacturing publications Aerospace Manufacturing & Design, Today’s Medical Developments, Today’s eMobility, and Today’s Motor Vehicles have been getting similar calls as more businesses look to join relief efforts.
We’re collecting lists of resources on how companies can help and should have more information in the coming days on how to take part as the health care industry looks to manufacturing to help save lives.
About the author: Robert Schoenberger is the editor of Today's Motor Vehicles and Today's eMobility and a contributor to Today's Medical Developments and Aerospace Manufacturing and Design. He has written about the automotive industry for more than 20 years at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio; The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky; and The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi.