How Ford Is Mobilizing Its Engineers in the COVID-19 Fight
Creativity and speed are key to Ford Motor Co.’s unique partnerships with 3M and GE Healthcare.
The fight against COVID-19 has forced disparate industries to collaborate on a technical level not seen since World War II, in order to boost supply of vital medical equipment. Creativity and speed have been key to Ford Motor Co.’s partnership with 3M and GE Healthcare. They’ve teamed to rapidly boost production of the urgently-needed face shields and ventilators, and bring solutions for simpler, easier-to-make designs of respirators and ventilators.
The unusual triad’s progress within the first 10 days together shows their ability to deliver technical solutions quickly, while united against a common foe. “Engineers are all about problem solving, and in this crisis the three organizations are speaking the same language,” said Marcy Fisher, Ford’s director of global body exterior and interior engineering, who is leading multiple Ford teams in the partnership. “We’re working around the clock with 3M and GE Healthcare and have learned from them and, I think, them from us.”
Fisher, a 34-year Ford product-development veteran, entered the coronavirus fight on Friday, March 20, when Ford leadership mobilized dedicated design, engineering and manufacturing assets toward the effort. “Within hours, my inbox had blown up; it was filled with ideas from Ford employees and our suppliers,” she said.
“Our Climate Control team is within my responsibility; airflow and filtration are what they do,” she told Automotive Engineering. “Fred Koberstein, the chief engineer and senior technical leader, and his team identified areas of opportunity to help. They immediately kicked into gear with some amazing ideas.” Also enlisted was Kathy Minnich, manager of North American materials engineering, who brought Ford’s mighty purchasing network and component database to bear.
With the clock ticking as the number of coronavirus victims climbed, Ford and 3M focused on increasing the throughput of PAPRs. These powered air-purifying respirators use a compact air pump to supply filtered positive airflow directly to the patient’s face within a shielded hood. “There’s a pressure drop associated with the filter in these devices,” Fisher explained. “Fred’s team quickly got a handle on the filtration equation then we looked at the filter/fan relationship.”
The engineers dove deep into the specs of Ford’s various seat fans to match the duty cycle of the medical application. The target output is 6-8 cubic feet per minute – the average cfm for PAPRs. Some of Ford’s seat fans exceed that volume, but Koberstein suggested the fan used in the F-150’s cooled-and-heated seats would fit the bill in performance and packaging.
“Speed to get it done is important here, as 3M urgently needs to accelerate their production. Their plant operations were constrained on making plastic housings so we brought in our experts in plastics tooling and mold-flow analysis,” Fisher explained. Bottlenecks were identified and ideas for a simplified, easy-to-make PAPR design – what Ford engineers dubbed a “scrappy papper” – were coming together quickly.
Medical-respirator hoods have specific criteria for fitment and function, which brought Ford’s chief engineer of cockpit and trim into the mix, along with a former technical leader. They quickly devised patterns for a cut-and-sew strategy for a cheap, elemental, disposable hood.
“Ford’s sewing prototype company [Automotive Trim Technologies in Taylor, Michigan] opened up for us the next morning, and Magna and other suppliers eagerly jumped in,” Fisher reported. And Ford Powertrain found a coolant hose that met specs for the PAPR blower tube. As of March 30, Ford’s ‘scrappy PAPR’ design had reached the pre-production validation stage.
An elastic alternative
Face shields and ventilators are also needed in staggering numbers. Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer noted on March 23 that the federal government’s delivery of 95,000 N95 respirators and 43,000 face shields earlier that week was “barely enough to cover one shift” at one local hospital, let alone a full day of shifts. To put the scale of this equipment into perspective, 3M currently manufactures more than 400 million N95 respirators annually and is looking to expand its global output by over 30% in the next 12 months, according to the company’s website.
Ford’s weekly output of plastic face shields – critical personal-protection equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers and first responders – is ramping up from 60,000 units on March 27, to a 600,000/week target by April 3, at Troy Design and Manufacturing (TDM), a large Ford subsidiary plant in Plymouth, Michigan. Volume is then expected to increase to two million shields/day, according to Ford.
The automaker is using 3D printing resources at its Advanced Manufacturing Center in Redford, Michigan, to prototype parts for both the shields and PAPRs, with material improvements coming both from in-house and supplier resources. “I talk to Adrian Price [Ford’s global manufacturing engineering boss] about ten times per day, about how we can improve production rate, flow and takt times for this equipment,” Fisher noted.
Elastic rubber is one key commodity that’s in short supply due to the coronavirus pandemic. When the shortage was discussed in a meeting, materials guru Minnich offered an alternative solution: Weatherstripping. “We called our weatherstripping supplier Cooper-Standard and they opened up their plant for us at 4 a.m. to do some prototype extruding,” Fisher said.
“Would weatherstrip material be an adequate substitute for thin elastic bands used in so many medical masks and shields?” Fisher asked. “By 5 p.m. that day they’d produced mask prototypes that we hand-delivered to our medical-tech advisors.”
Ford and GE Healthcare announced March 30 that they will make 12,000 ventilators at Ford's Rawsonville, Michigan, components plant by May 31, ramping to 50,000 by July 4 to meet growing demand. Those ventilators, known as Model A-E, are a pneumatic type (rather than electric). They were designed by Airon Corp. and licensed by GE. A Ford team is also working to boost production at an Airon facility in Florida. Separately, Ford has engineered a simplified ventilator design that has not entered production.
With Ford, its medical-industry partners, and the automaker’s suppliers intensely focused on getting equipment to where it’s needed, quickly, there has been little discussion around intellectual property and related legal topics that arise in collaborative projects, according to Fisher. Moving fast to beat COVID-19 was the priority mandated by Ford leadership. “We put a few NDA’s [non-disclosure agreements] in place with 3M,” she noted. “The attorneys have turned around everything fast. That’s the only way to move in this crisis.”
NOTE TO READERS: For the latest medical-technology news and information related to the COVID-19 pandemic, see SAE International’s Medical Design Briefs .