Editor’s note: Jeff Miller, North America vehicle operations/powertrain operations IT site operations manager, is part of a Ford team embedded at a 3M facility in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Ford is teaming up with 3M to assist with production of respirators during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is his account of the situation there.
The drive from Saline, Michigan, to Aberdeen, South Dakota, was just over 13 hours.
A benefit of driving when the states are basically shut down by a pandemic is that you have less traffic to contend with, especially through Chicago. The downside is that most rest stops along the way are closed. The journey took me through Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and South Dakota.
Aberdeen has a population of around 28,000, making it the third-largest city in the state. It is basically in the middle of hundreds of miles of rolling prairie and farm field. The funny part is that the main road that splits the town is U.S.-12 – the very same that splits Dearborn.
The 3M plant is on the east side of town, only a mile from the hotel where the Ford volunteers are staying. We’re here to help them with production of respirators and offer our manufacturing expertise to increase their output.
The plant produces respirators, furnace filters, aerospace film, medical tapes and adhesives for automotive. The body trim and badges that go on our Ford vehicles are secured by 3M products. They have capacity to produce over 1 million respirator units per day, and are the single largest producer in the country. They are hyper-focused on both safety and quality. With more than 35 internal and external audits per year, they have to be.
The Aberdeen area is about a week behind us with COVID-19 preparations. Some restaurants were still seating folks when we arrived March 25, but most are now open for carry-out only.
As of Sunday evening, there are 90 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state and one death. In the county I am in, there have only been two confirmed cases. Even with those small numbers, everyone is focused on distancing and surface cleaning.
Along with assisting with production of respirators, our team is also collecting daily reports to share with 3M management. We have been asked to collect and share anything that could be used to make process and productivity improvements at their facility. These get reviewed and prioritized daily with their leadership. That is the real benefit of Ford’s participation. We have many talented engineers, material handling, six-sigma specialists, and one IT (that’s me).
On day one, I spent 12 hours in orientation and job prep. I am officially a respirator autoload operator, which is a fancy term for a production worker running a respirator assembly operation. I am assigned to A-crew (midnights) and we are running seven days a week. The attached photo shows the respirator that I currently produce, roughly 8,000 per shift/per operator – all visually inspected for quality. Not sure about this graveyard business. My sleep and eating patterns are a bit confused.
The plant is about 450,000 square feet. They have been open since the early 1970s and employ around 700 people. The jobs at 3M are considered some of the best in the area, and there’s not much else here but retail and farming.
There is no food, open drink containers, smoking, chewing gum/tobacco or electronics allowed on the production floor. This is a closed campus, so once you enter the building, you cannot leave until the end of your shift. You get two 30-minute breaks during the eight-hour shift, and can use that time to eat, rest and use your phone – but only inside the plant.
I’ll share some observations from a few shifts:
· The people here are fantastic – very kind, friendly and happy that Ford is here to help.
· Operators do most of their own equipment maintenance and everyone is rewarded for being problem solvers.
· Scrap is excessive. The saying is “When in doubt, toss it out.” Things that are cosmetic-only are pitched. They really take quality seriously.
· With equipment running 24x7 and “hot hand-off” between shifts, there is little time to do maintenance. This leads to a fair amount of equipment issues.
· With no electronics allowed on the floor, they play music over the PA all day. Not sure who the DJ is, but you will listen to just about everything – rap, 70s, country, Motown, etc.
One week down
After seven days of running production here at 3M, I feel like I have hit my stride. I am by no means a fully qualified operator, but I can run a complete work cell (two final assembly) by myself, now producing upward of 18,000 respirators for one eight-hour shift.
They will not let us Ford folks crawl into the equipment to clear faults or jams, but otherwise we are pretty independent. Each day, I learn more about the operation, which in turn gives me more improvement suggestions to offer.
On that note, the Ford team here has a matrix of more than 200 process/part/equipment improvement suggestions. The 3M management team are astonished and somewhat overwhelmed. There are some quick-fix items that have already been implemented, which has led to significant increases in production, and there are others that require more time and money.
The progress to date has been rather impressive. We are right around a 30 percent improvement in sustained volume. By the time we depart, it will be even higher. That is a lot of extra respirators making it to hospitals around the country. In parallel, due to Ford’s persistence, 3M has begun airfreighting respirators out of Aberdeen. This will help cut seven to 10 days out of the delivery process, putting these more quickly into the hands of the front-line defense.