After shipping over 1 million protective face shields, Ford was in the midst of more than doubling its production effort to aide those on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.
That’s when a major obstacle appeared.
In an urgent scramble that took place through Easter weekend, Ford employees and the team at Troy Design and Manufacturing worked around the clock to identify and solve a problem that had slowed down the production of face shields. The effort culminated in a 10-hour drive to and from Illinois – all in an effort to secure enough production intent material for the team to prove it had a robust solution to resume manufacturing at a high output.
In a bid to boost production up to 7 million face shields over the span of a week, the team needed to automate certain parts of the manufacturing process. This included incorporating the use of electric staplers, since it simply wasn’t possible to manually staple millions of masks together at the levels needed.
The first cracks surface
On the morning of Friday, April 10, however, the team building face shields at Troy Design and Manufacturing noticed a problem: some of the electric staplers were damaging plastic upon impact, causing the headband of the shield to break loose.
“Imagine having a fist slowly pushed into your chest versus getting punched – that’s the difference between a manual staple and an electric one,” said Howard Lew, a VCSE strategy and operations manager who was also part of the team that designed the face shield. “The impact of the electric stapler was putting a lot of force onto the plastic and causing it to crack.”
By 8:30 a.m., shield production was shut down as the team looked for a solution. At first Lew and his colleagues at TDM thought they could fix the issue by modifying the staplers themselves, but those efforts didn’t yield results on the floor. Production was halted again.
At this point the TDM team, led by Vice President of Manufacturing Kristina Karschnia and Vice President of Business Planning Tim Jagoda, wanted to ensure that quality face shields continued to be built even if it meant moving slower. That meant applying reinforcement tape to the shields in order to provide extra strength, just as they did at the very start of shield production.
“At the beginning of the process we were applying friction tape to the corners to strengthen the mask with lighter [plastic] polymer,” said Karschnia, “so we instructed the afternoon team to revert back to that process” until further solutions were identified. This move doubled cycle time, but it ensured that TDM could keep pushing out face shields with the quality the team expected.
Searching for answers
In the meantime, Lew and his colleagues, including Christopher Hunt, product design and engineering manager at TDM, were on the phone with plastic supplier Placon trying to find answers. In 30 years of supplying this type of plastic – the same kind of material you find in plastic strawberry containers at the grocery story – Placon had never seen it crack.
“Our supplier had never provided this type of material to anybody trying to pump out 7 million units of anything in a week’s time,” said Lew. “The speed and volume required for production on this scale meant we had to use manufacturing processes that were a little harsher because we had to go faster.”
After further discussion, including conversations with Kathy Minnich, Ford’s core materials engineering manager, the team concluded that the plastic they were using was too brittle due to the fact that it contained recycled material – they needed something purer. Placon had shipped new, more pliable plastic samples overnight, but further testing by Hunt’s team on Saturday found it still wasn’t quite what the team needed, and Placon didn’t have the variation they needed in stock at the time.
That’s when another supplier jumped into the fray. Based in Richmond, Illinois, Ex-Tech Plastics informed the team they did have the right samples, but there was a catch: Nobody would deliver the material to him on Easter Sunday. On his way to TDM around 3 p.m. on Saturday, Lew spoke with Hunt and re-routed himself to Richmond.
“As an engineer we always are looking to improve the process and materials used in any product,” said Hunt. “We could not locate any of this material locally and that’s when Howard drove out to Chicago Saturday night. He delivered the sample material at 2 a.m. Easter Sunday, and that morning my team and I started building samples at 7 a.m. to test.”
Fortunately, the effort was worth it: The plastic was exactly what the team needed. Out of 30 samples tested, only one showed any sign of fracturing – and it was minimal. Hunt’s team could go home to be with their families knowing their time was well spent.
“There was just lots of extraordinary effort from all parties involved,” said Lew, “from working at 7 a.m. Easter Sunday in the lab and testing before getting back to families to putting tremendous stress on suppliers, and getting the logistics to pick up and drive this material over.”
With the right material identified, Placon began extruding the proper plastic the following week, with Ex-Tech supplying even more raw material to Placon to help meet Ford’s needs.
“We just pulled together as Americans, plain and simple, working side by side stronger than we ever have,” said Hunt. “The relentless day to day approach of each team member going the extra mile! “This crisis has probably brought out both the bad and the good in humanity, but I’ve only seen the good here with our TDM/Ford team being energized and motivated!”
That motivation has paid off. Shortly after materials were secured, TDM bumped its daily target up to 500,000 face shields a day. On multiple days they have blown past that target, building up to 660,000 shields in one day. Karschnia has also seen a surge in Ford volunteers.
“Leaders emerged in every group of people in the shop and they supported each other to not become frustrated when we had to revert to an old, more time consuming method and keep their eye on the prize,” she said. “It is truly amazing and inspiring how Ford and TDM employees rally around a project.”