It’s been nearly four months since the COVID-19 pandemic initially sent manufacturers into a turmoil they had never experienced. A sudden onslaught in demand for ventilators, PPE, and other medical equipment was unprecedented in its scope and urgency. Supply chains ground nearly to a halt as international operations were forced to shut down to combat the virus. Stay-at-home orders meant sending scores of employees to work at home, putting new strain on IT networks and putting business functions in peril.

But while manufacturers had no way to predict an emergency of this scope, they more than made up for it in agility and innovation. Faced with new production demands, a scattered workforce, and a need to drastically adjust their own operations to protect employee health and safety, many discovered new ways to leverage their technologies, skills, and people to meet these novel challenges.

Several of these stories were highlighted in the June issue of the Manufacturing Leadership Journal, a few of which were featured on a recent Manufacturing Leadership Council virtual meeting. Panelists on this meeting included Dr. Rebecca Teeters, Advance 3M Strategy & Execution Director; Dan Grieshaber, Director of Manufacturing Engineering Integration at GM; and Vicki Holt, President and CEO at Protolabs.

Scaling Up for Product Redistribution at 3M

To keep themselves prepared for the unpreparable, 3M maintains an X-Factor Event Plan, which they define as a significant circumstance, unpredictable by nature, that results in a strong and rapid increase in demand resulting production constraints for their products. COVID-19 is such an event, as are others such as the recent significant wildfires worldwide and dangerous air pollution levels in China. Teeters said that the pandemic has far exceeded any previous X-Factor demand that the company has experienced.

3M’s N95 particulate respirator was the focus of many news stories at the dawn of the pandemic as demand for them skyrocketed among the healthcare industry. Prior to that, however, the primary market for the masks were industrial consumers. The traditional market balance for the N95 mask had been 95% industrial and 5% healthcare. After the pandemic, that demand has shifted to the inverse.

This created a perfect opportunity for 3M to leverage is manufacturing capabilities and redirect its product distribution through entirely new channels. The company already had been making efforts for two years to improve end-to-end supply chain visibility and create digital twins, both of which were critical to pivoting operations quickly. The company has also relied on AR/VR technologies for things like installation of new equipment in global facilities.

“Under all circumstances, our three primary objectives are safety and sustainability, customer experience, and efficiency,” Teeters said. “We build capabilities around all of these to improve our response.”

The company has since tripled its production of the N95. Teeters said that the upheaval was an opportunity to reimagine manufacturing operations at 3M and to rely on their technology and analytics capabilities. “We are a heavily integrated company from a materials perspective. If we can then vertically integrate our data, and also make it horizontal, we are much more capable throughout our end-to-end manufacturing response.”

At GM, Project “V” Accelerated by M4.0 Technologies

While GM is known as one of the biggest automakers in the world, they had something much more valuable than vehicles to contribute to the pandemic response: manufacturing know-how. In its headline-making joint project with ventilator maker Ventec Life Systems, the automaker stood up an entirely new ventilator production facility in a components manufacturing facility in Kokomo, Ind. By essentially recreating and scaling Ventec’s Seattle-area manufacturing plant in Kokomo, production went from one ventilator per hour to 20 ventilators per hour, running over a three-shift operation.

GM initially identified the need for increased ventilator production in mid-March, and sent a small team to Seattle to walk through Ventec’s manufacturing operation. It was determined there was no effective way to scale their operations at that location, and the two companies signed an agreement on March 24 that GM would produce ventilators in one of their production facilities. The company settled on Kokomo, and on April 17, the first ventilators were delivered to two Chicago-area hospitals and a FEMA storage facility, under GM’s government contract.

The new ventilator production line was essentially built as it was designed. GM used a photogrammetry provider to scan Ventec’s Seattle facility and then used that data as a basis for recreating it in Kokomo, everything from flooring to worktable density to racking systems for parts. Standard operator tasks and training were also sourced from this initial data set.

While simulation tools were key for bringing production online quickly, the company also relied on 3D printing to make some of the fixtures needed to make the ventilators. But they also began a mask-making operation – Project “M” – and have pivoted other operations to make hand sanitizer, medical gowns, and face shields. GM has produced 5 million masks, initially donated to medical facilities and now used internally by GM employees in adherence to the company’s mandatory mask policy.

Grieshaber said the pandemic broadened employee exposure to the company’s existing M4.0 technologies. “Given the size of our operation, not everyone gets exposure to the M4.0 tools we have in place, and the pandemic has given them much more exposure to these technologies,” he said.

But he also was clear that technology is just one element to solving big manufacturing challenges. “You need good organizational structure, good people skills, and standardized work practices in order to succeed,” he said. “We were glad to step up when the country needed us, and longer term we see significant benefit to our company in regard to what we’ve learned.”

Lessons Learned Become Permanent Changes at Protolabs

Protolabs centers its business model around helping companies move from idea to finished product as quickly as possible. With their ability to prioritize and scale based on demand, the company realized early on that they could help fulfill critical needs for their healthcare customers.

As the company began to see a huge influx of orders for masks, respirators, and other medical equipment, they were able to prioritize those orders ahead of others to make sure they would get out as quickly as possible. To date, the company made more than 8 million expedited custom components using a mix of CNC machining, 3D printing, sheet metal fabrication, and injection molding.

In addition to leveraging their production model, the company’s B2B ecommerce capabilities allowed customers to easily upload their CAD files to a website. Protolabs then used those files to provide quotes and collaborate digitally with the customer to the point of manufacture. Their digital technologies created a good experience for their customers and also for the company’s own designers, engineers, and supply chain.

Holt said that going forward it will be a part of the company’s culture to know that with clarity of purpose and prioritization, they can move very fast. Additionally, communication will be better aligned throughout the organization to build awareness and allow for rapid execution, and there will be an emphasis on the need to be agile and adaptive to change.

Upcoming Virtual Meetings on What’s Next for Manufacturing?

The Manufacturing Leadership Council will be hosting a virtual meeting every Tuesday in July at 11 am ET to look at the different aspects of the post-COVID world for manufacturing and recordings will be available to members in the content library. Contact MLCouncil@nam.org for an invitation.