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Automaker GM changed lanes and accelerated production in its Warren, Mich. facility to make Level 1 face masks for the protection of frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. A core team of 30 engineers, designers, buyers and manufacturing team members developed and implemented a supply chain and production plan that broke land speed records, with the first production-made mask coming off the line in seven days, beating its initial target deadline by a healthy half-an-hour. Working through the weekend, more than 2,000 masks were produced. It can now make up to 1.5 million masks a month, and is sharing its production plans to help other manufacturers with their own mask production efforts. According to GM spokesperson Monte Doran, “More than 300 companies have downloaded our plans. We are also adding mask lines in other parts of the world, including a site in Mexico that is starting production this week to meet the outpouring of requests for masks.”
One reason GM was able to ramp up so quickly, Doran notes, was the ability to leverage its global footprint. “Our joint venture in China, SAIC-GM-Wuling, had already started their own mask production line in February. We spend the week building upon and improving that process to achieve faster output and greater quality. For example, we used a sonic welder that uses high-frequency vibrations rather than heat to attach ear pieces to the mask. To help automate the process, the team designed and 3D printed jigs that would accurately locate the ear pieces, thereby speeding up production and improving the quality.”
Another challenge was to source materials, equipment and production processes simultaneously. To avoid competing for raw materials with existing face mask companies, GM turned to their existing fabric suppliers and asked them to modify their processes. For some cases, that meant retooling to meet required filtration requirements. “The response from our suppliers was simply heroic,” Doran says. “Just one example is JL Automation, which in six days designed, built and delivered a machine to automatically fold/weld/cut face masks.”
GM is donating masks to hospitals, as well as providing masks for its own employees so as to reduce its own purchases from medical equipment suppliers so they can concentrate on supplying to frontline workers. Doran explains that, “To get masks where they are needed most, we first worked with the Michigan Community Service Commission, which is managing a list of organizations in the state requesting Personal Protection Equipment. In addition, Team GM Cares volunteers are hand-delivering masks. The first week of production over 200,000 masks went to Detroit area hospitals. By the end of this week, we will have delivered more than 500,000 masks, and expanded our network of hospitals across Michigan. We are also working with other states and organizations to further expand our donations once we have met the needs of Michigan hospitals.”