DETROIT (Reuters) – Before the coronavirus outbreak shut them down, U.S. auto factories were hectic workplaces where men and women worked side by side along fast-moving assembly lines, ate in crowded break areas, and jostled in and out of gates as they changed shifts.
That is not what auto factories are like in the era of COVID-19. A General Motors Co (GM.N) operation set up in a shuttered transmission factory in Warren, Michigan to assemble face masks provides a glimpse of what manufacturing will look like for the foreseeable future.
People entering the plant rub their hands in sanitizer made by a Detroit brewery. A surgical face mask and safety glasses are required equipment. They stand while a security guard points a temperature scanner at them.
GM’s face mask factory sits in a sprawling maze of abandoned transmission gear machining stations. Automakers have compared their crash programs to manufacture medical equipment for the COVID-19 outbreak to the ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ of the World War Two era, when Midwestern auto plants were converted to build tanks and airplanes. The Warren plant, built in 1941, has now played a role in both crises.
On the way to lockers and an air shower that blows dust off their clothes, workers pass a small break area. The space looks like a cafe for loners: small round tables, six feet apart, with a single chair at each one.
About 140 people currently work on two shifts producing surgical masks and more robust N95 masks at a pace of about 1.5 million masks a month, said Joe Mizzi, the GM manager who launched and oversees the operation.
Before the COVID-19 crisis, Mizzi traveled the world, working with plants to launch new GM vehicles on time. Shortly after GM’s U.S. plants were forced to shut down in March, Mizzi said his boss called to ask if he could lead the crash project to start making masks.
Making a surgical mask starts with rolls of fabric. The fabric GM uses is produced by the same suppliers who provide sound insulation and other textiles for GM vehicles.
The fabric is fed into machines the size of a large microwave oven that automatically pleat and cut it into masks.
The masks then go to workers who sit in front of small machines that use sonic waves to attach elastic ear straps.
Dave Zakalowski is a 13-year veteran GM employee who agreed to work on the mask line. A United Auto Workers union member, Zakalowski said he used to work in the Warren transmission plant before it was shut down last year. Then he moved to GM’s truck plant in Flint.
Asked about going back to his regular job, Zakalowski said, “It’s going to take time. I hope they don’t rush things too fast. Otherwise, we’ll be right back where we started.”
Among the UAW’s concerns is that workers have enough masks.