‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ was the famous message that the British Government delivered to its people during World War II. Today, as the world battles an enemy of a different sort, calls to ‘Flatten the Curve’ and reminders that ‘We’re All In This Together’ abound. Although the battle against COVID-19 is far different in nature than World War II, there are certain similarities. One such parallel is the pivotal role that manufacturing plays in the quest for victory. Supplies, and the supply chain, are key components of our response to this challenge and, just as in WWII, victory will require innovation and collaboration. While changing times, and enemies, will mean today’s adjustments will be different in nature than those utilized in the past, they similarly promise to alter the manufacturing landscape in ways that will outlast the current struggle.
The COVID-19 virus cannot be defeated using guns and ammunition, but the battle against it does require both offense (vaccine development) and defense (ventilators, medical supplies, personal protective equipment, sanitization products, etc.). From major automotive companies to Mom and Pop microbreweries, businesses are making a pivot away from their normal production practices and focussing instead on manufacturing products needed in the fight against COVID-19.
Production Technology During COVID-19
With many men stationed overseas, WWII manufacturing efforts called upon women, who entered the workforce in record numbers. This ‘all hands on deck’ mentality is personified by the iconic ‘Rosie the Riveter’ caricature. This time around technology plays the starring role in retooling efforts, although human spirit and determination are still central.
Moulding Precision Components is a 60-person firm that normally produces auto parts, located just north of Toronto. In an effort to contribute to the effort, as well as keep his 60 person staff busy, owner David Yeaman turned toward producing medical protective gear. MPC used a 3D printer to complete a prototype sample of a headset component for medical face shields. They then embarked upon a retooling effort that is expected to take four weeks.
“Getting the product to mass-volume numbers in four weeks is herculean,” says Yeaman. “A product like this would typically take four to six months.”1
Ontario’s Burloak Technologies utilizes additive technologies in their manufacturing process, which typically centres around the aerospace sector. The company decided to begin producing a 2.5-cu-in metal component that is needed for ventilators. President Simon Walls was confident that their technology was primed for the pivot.
“Tooling can take, depending on the size of the part, weeks or months to create. With additive processes we can go from concept to design to production in days, sometimes hours,” said Walls.2
Jason Zanatta, president and CEO of Coquitlam-based Novo Textiles typically has his mind on the pillows and dog-beds the company normally produces. He recently paid $600,000 in cash for two automated machines which would allow the company to produce badly-needed medical grade surgical masks.
“Up until the world changed in the past month, when you bought an automated machine, the manufacturer would send an engineer to help you assemble it,” said Zanatta.3
With travel restrictions leaving that out of the question, Zanatta has instead utilized instructional videos, using Google to translate the instructions, which are voiced in Mandarin.
Working Safely and Remotely
Manufacturers have been upping sanitization protocol and adjusting work routines in an effort to keep employees safe during these dangerous times. The safest practice, of course, is maintaining physical distance. While many other industries have been able to adjust to a strict work-from-home regiment, this is not always possible when it comes to manufacturing.
While the physical presence of some employees is unavoidable, many in the industry have in fact been able to work remotely.
“We’re trying to meet our production numbers with fewer people on the floor,” said one plant manager who declined to be identified. “Everyone who has to push a button, turn a knob, or drive a forklift still has to be in the plant; the rest are working remotely.”4
Those able to work from home include not only marketing and finance, but also managers and engineering teams.
“Remote monitoring solutions provide the operational visibility that these teams need to track performance and make the necessary recommendations without having to physically be on the factory floor. For example, dashboards that show production metrics by line, shift or day allow plant managers or global operations teams to quickly view and compare performance while Pareto analysis and data exploration tools allow process or quality engineers to conduct root cause analysis.”5
Quick Change, Lasting Impact
Just as women remained a vital part of the workforce upon the completion of WWII, the software and robotics central to current efforts may well continue to be utilized in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis.
Indeed, the manufacturing sector should be commended for the innovative and valuable ways in which they have contributed to the COVID response.
With technology playing such a vital role in operations, however, it’s also important to remember that not all things occur in the digital realm.
“You have to extrude metal,” says University of Michigan business professor, “you have to bend metal, you have to weld metal because there is no such thing as a software ventilator.”5
1 Ha, Tu Thanh. “Canadian Companies Retool to Meet Demands on Front Lines of Pandemic.” The Globe and Mail, March 29, 2020. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/business/article-how-canadian-companies-are-transforming-to-meet-demand-on-pandemic/
2 “Manufacturing in the Age of COVID-19.” Canadian Metalworkings. Accessed April 14, 2020. https://www.canadianmetalworking.com/canadianmetalworking/article/covid19/manufacturing-in-the-age-of-covid-19
3 Ryan, Denise. “COVID-19: Coquitlam Company Retools, Will Be First in Canada to Produce N95 Respirators.” Vancouver Sun. Vancouver Sun, April 8, 2020. https://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/covid-19-coquitlam-company-retools-will-be-first-in-canada-to-produce-n95-respirators/
4 Sundblad, Willem. “How To Keep Manufacturing Efficient In Remote Environments.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, March 19, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/willemsundbladeurope/2020/03/19/maintaining-factory-efficiency-in-remote-environments-sundblad/#27e1d3141a3b
5 “We’re at War with COVID-19. What Lessons Can We Learn from World War II?” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, March 26, 2020. https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2020-03-26/coronavirus-world-war-ii-trump-defense-production-act