How GM Went From Building Suburbans to Producing a Million Facemasks a Month

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During the past three months, the tech community has quickly come to the aid in the battle against COVID-19.  Many have provided solutions to enable companies to rapidly adopt teleworking.  Others have created solutions to help ensure workplace safety.  Some have focused specifically on frontline workers, like Off Their Plate, a relief organization launched by a medical student in Boston, which partnered with restaurants in nine cities to provide food for healthcare workers.  The organization has raised enough to provide nearly 600,000 meals.

Other companies completely shifted their businesses to focus on immediate needs during the pandemic, like creating a supply of PPE.  Using the tagline, “Not all heroes wear capes – some of them wear masks,” General Motors, for instance, converted it production facility in Warren, Michigan, into a PPE production plant in a week.  Well, just under a week.  The company says the time from project launch to production of its first mask was 6 days, 23 hours, 30 minutes.

“Our team began looking at ways we could quickly utilize our talents and resources to help in the shared fight against COVID-19.  Working around the clock, our team rallied with incredible passion and focus to come up with a plan to produce masks that will help protect the women and men on the front lines of this crisis.”

Peter Thom, vP, Global Manufacturing Engineering, GM

GM pulled together more than 30 engineers, designers, buyers, and members of its manufacturing team to design the product, source materials and equipment, and plan the production process.  The team relied on its existing supply chain for the raw materials, including metal nose pieces, elastic straps, and non-woven fabric filter material.  These are companies that typically provide GM with sound-deadening insulation found in doors, headliners and trunks, but quickly altered their production processes to help manufacture mask materials.

GM also worked with two Michigan firms – JR Automation and Esys Automation – to design and build the necessary assembly equipment.

Aaron Leitz sets-up and tests a machine that will be used to manufacture Level 1 face masks at the General Motors Warren, Michigan manufacturing facility. Production will begin next week and within two weeks ramp up to 50,000 masks per day, with the potential to increase to 100,000 per day. (Photo by John F. Martin for General Motors)

Before beginning production, the team cleared out a 31,000-sqare-foot space in its Warren facility, then installed new electrical lines to power production.  Once equipment and materials were on-site, the team worked quickly to install the machines and test the production process.

Workers begin final preparation for manufacturing Level 1 face masks at the General Motors facility in Warren, Michigan. (Photo by John F. Martin for General Motors)

With the materials and machinery in place, GM was ready to start making masks:

  • Fold, weld, and cut – A custom-made “mask maker” automatically sandwiches the filter material and metal nose piece between an inner and outer layer of fabric.  It then folds the pleats, welds the layers together, and cuts each mask accordingly.
  • Cut and attach the ear loops – Employees cut ear loops from elastic straps and attach them to the mask using sonic welders.  Often used in many automotive applications, these sonic welders use ultra-fast vibrations to “melt” the two materials together, without using heat.  Ear loops are then checked to ensure size and secure attachment to the mask.
  • Sterilization – Masks are loaded into a sterilization cabinet that is filled with high levels of ozone for 20 minutes to sanitize the masks.
  • Bagging – Masks are bagged, sealed and prepped for delivery in packages of 10.  While the GM team has identified a process for mass-producing masks in a short amount of time, we are continuously looking for improvements to speed up production. For example, during the first week the team manually labeled and sealed bags in two separate stations; now the team has sourced machines that save significant time by labeling and sealing bags in one station.

In the first four weeks of production, GM produced 1 million masks.  What does that amount to?  To put in GM terms, a million masks fills 32 new Suburbans filled to capacity.

Workers produce N95-style filtering facepiece respirators at the General Motors manufacturing facility in Warren, Michigan. (Photo by John F. Martin for General Motors)

GM also added several other PPE items to its production capabilities, including face shields, Tyvek gowns, and more.  The face shields were made using 3D printing equipment at several GM facilities, and assembled in Warren.  It also started producing aerosol boxes, see-through containers that protect medical personnel while they are intubating patients.

 “It’s amazing how much our employees have accomplished in such a short time.  People from all corners of the company have really stepped up to help, and to lend their talents, time and energy to battle coronavirus.”

Mark Reuss, President, GM

GM also chose to share its production plans with the Michigan Manufacturers Association, which includes some 1,700 member companies across all industries, to allow them to join to fight against COVID-19.  GM says its production process is capable of producing 1.5 million masks per month.

It’s hard not to be impressed with how quickly GM was able to adapt to a critical need by shifting how it used its existing resources to support healthcare workers.