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Better Ideas: Ford’s Approach Got Pandemic Response Flowing

New film documents how the automaker pivoted to making ventilators and PPE — and helped other manufacturers in the process.

He may not have moved the needle for Ford in areas such as market share and “mobility” strategies as much as hoped, but departing Ford CEO Jim Hackett made an impact on the company during his three-year tenure with his philosophy of “human-centered design.”

That has become evident in a new way, as a recently released documentary short film, On the Line, tells the story of how the automaker responded quickly and effectively to the Covid-19 pandemic last spring by launching production of ventilators and personal protective equipment with speed and effectiveness that stunned even Ford executives.

The leader of the effort attributed much of the success of the effort to the company’s new reliance on “the discipline of human-centered design,” a management approach that Hackett brought with him to Ford from his 20-year stint as CEO of furniture maker Steelcase.

“You understand the customer and take time to listen and learn and look for patterns that are emerging,” explained Jim Baumbick, Ford’s vice president of enterprise product line management, strategy and planning. “That’s what we applied during the early days of this effort when we were cold-calling all the top manufacturers of ventilators.”

Baubick added, “It’s the way we’re working, and Jim deserves a lot of credit for instilling this mindset and capability. We thought, ‘Why apply this to our new Bronco [SUV] and not apply it to the nation’s health crisis?’”

In fact, Ford did apply itself ambitiously to the cause. Once it launched what was code-named “Project Apollo” last spring in its engineering labs and its factories, Ford was able to turn out 50,000 ventilators — the last of which it delivered to the federal government a couple of weeks ago  — as well as masks, face shields and medical-grade gowns. Ford made more than 75 million pieces of equipment, overall.

And even now, Ford is increasing capacity so that it can donate 100 million more medical-grade face masks to various organizations around the country through 2021.

The eight-minute documentary short was directed by Peter Berg, of Friday Naight Lights and Patriots Day fame and highlights Ford engineers as well as unionized Ford employees who volunteered to come and make the PPE at a time when everyone else was sheltering in place. The film also shares stories from some of the first responders who needed the PPE.

“People raised their hands to say, ‘What can I do? How can I help?’” Baumbick recalled. Berg “did a really amazing job of capturing that spirit.”

The documentary debuted September 4 at Aspen Ideas Now and is sure to get lots of exposure by Ford — and others — as an inspirational tale of the can-do and sacrificial spirit that can motivate a company and its employees, both white- and blue-collar, to come together quickly and unstopably behind the right cause.

Project Apollo also called on Ford’s ability to work with General Electric, 3M and other manufacturers even though Ford never had produced a mask or ventilator in its history, while GE was familiar with ventilators and 3M has made millions of masks.

“We got on the phone to help 3M boost output of their N95 masks,” for example, Baumbick said. “Our value-add was to apply high-volume manufacturing expertise that you see uniquely in the auto industry. How can you break constraints and improve the efficiency of the line?

“We helped them rebalance work so they could get, net, more throughput through the line,” Baumbick explained. “We found quite a few places where you could change a process to improve cycle time, and move it around, so that the throughput of the whole assembly process got more things out of the back end. That’s what industrial engineers do.”

Ford Executive Chairman “Bill Ford said that lots of companies build complex things, but at low volumes; we build very complex machines at very high volumes.”

In the end, Ford sent dozens of manufacturing and industrial engineers to 3M and GE production sites “just to help them get more out of what they had,” Baumbick said. “It had a profound impact.”

In fact, the name of Ford’s herculean effort that also involved representatives from these other manufacturers comes from a real-life moment, captured cinematically by Berg. That moment echoes one of the most real-life dramatic moments ever, which was recreated cinematically in Apollo 13.

“In the Apollo mission, at one point they had to save the astronauts by literally putting a square peg in a round hole with, of course, only what was on board the capsule,” Baumbick said. “And that’s how Mission Control put it to their engineers in a desperate, crash effort to find a solution.

“The maximum protection for medical workers is called a ‘powered, air-purifying respirator,’ or PAPR,” Baumbick explained. “It has a fan that pulls in air and routes it through a tube into a sealed head-top unit; the filtered air protects the worker. That’s where we came up with the Apollo 13 reference, because it was like fitting a square peg into a round hole. But the premise of PAPR is air-handling, and we have air-handling systems in cars, and filtering capabilities.

“So within 36 hours of the discussion, our teams had sketched up a prototype of a PAPR, taking a battery off a DeWalt [power] tool, a seat blower fan out of an F-150, and a HEPA filter and creating a head-top unit. And we said, ‘We think we can do this.’” Within 38 days, Baumbick said, Ford was making government-approved PAPRs with 3-M in output that now totals more than 32,000 units.

A crisis “sometimes drives innovation,” Baumbick said. “We looked at this as an Apollo mission for first responders.”



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