Manufacturing responds to COVID-19

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“People stopped being human in 1913. That was the year Henry Ford put his cars on rollers and made his workers adopt the speed of the assembly line.” — Jeffery Eugenides, Middlesex (2002)

Oh how wrong that Pulitzer Prize-winning novel’s assessment of life on the assembly line turned out to be.

If we learn nothing else from the COVID-19 pandemic that as of late April had sickened 3.1 million worldwide and killed nearly 220,000, we now know that humanity is crucial to modern manufacturing.

Digital tools may be making it easier to shift work from automotive components to ventilators, and 3D printers may be able to create support brackets for face shields, but people are at the heart of the industry’s rapid response to this crisis.

Factory workers, far from being the soulless machines Eugenides feared in his loving tribute to Detroit’s complicated history, volunteered by the thousands to leave the safety of their homes and risk exposure to the novel coronavirus. Their reward? Long shifts during which they can’t do the sorts of things that make a typical work day more enjoyable – have a meal with a colleague, talk about last night’s game by the water cooler, blow out candles on a birthday cake.

In Kokomo, Indiana, General Motors worker Debbie Hollis volunteered to make ventilators instead of the electronic components normally assembled there.

“I have family all across the country, so (COVID-19) has impacted everybody that I know and love,” Hollis says. “I’m grateful that I get a chance to do my part and be a part of something. We are modern-day Rosie the Riveters.”

In Pennsylvania, workers at two plants owned by petrochemical maker Braskem volunteered to live in their factories for a month. Near Philadelphia, 43 employees locked themselves inside, working 12-hour shifts interspersed with cleaning and cooking duties. Isolated from family, friends, and anyone else who could carry the virus into the facility, they produced enough material to make hundreds of millions of N95 masks needed by healthcare workers.

In March, as factories closed to slow the spread of the virus and elected officials instructed most Americans to stay at home, manufacturers began writing and calling the editors of GIE Media’s manufacturing group, asking us the same question – “What can we do to help?”

Decades from now, when the students forced to take their classes online today tell their children about the 2020 pandemic, some may remember binge-watching Tiger King on Netflix, or someone forgetting to put on pants during a Zoom meeting. They’ll retell stories about wearing face masks to grocery stores or missing senior proms. They might remember New York residents leaning out of windows to applaud doctors and nurses heading to work.

Hopefully, they’ll remember the assembly line workers who stayed at their stations to make the equipment needed to protect healthcare workers and treat sick patients. It’s easy to say we’re all in this together. Thankfully, manufacturers nationwide are showing us what that really means.