Aircrafts to Ventilators: How the Ford Motor Company Reimagines Its Assembly Line During Times of Crisis
The manufacturing giant has a history of flexing its muscle to respond to America’s moments of need.
At first, the most challenging thing about battling the coronavirus was how little we really knew about it. Last spring, as factories, businesses, schools and just about every other facet of life shut down across the country, Ford assembly lines were no different. With factories closed, uncertainty about reopening, and a mounting public health crisis, Ford employees had one question on their minds: How do we help? It’s a question Ford has asked and answered throughout its history, from disease outbreaks to world wars.
As Ford began making plans to close its offices during the pandemic, engineering and design started prepping for remote work. In mid-March, Director of Global Core Engineering Adrian Price set up a digital workspace to connect with the company's roughly 700 engineers in North America. Shortly thereafter, the company collaborated with key suppliers, including 3M and GE Healthcare, to see about shifting production lines from cars and trucks to personal protective equipment (PPE). Price put out the call for volunteers to help with the project. In just 10 minutes, more than 120 employees raised their hands, virtually. It was the start of something big. Within weeks, Ford would produce millions of masks, gowns, and face shields, along with technical equipment like ventilators and respirators.
“People at Ford just want to help,” Price says, “It’s in our DNA. We’re a family company and everyone wants to do the right thing. And [here] you have the support to do it all the way up to the top of the house.” Indeed, the Ford family still maintains a percentage of ownership in the company, and founder Henry Ford’s great-grandson William Clay Ford Jr. serves as executive chairman. As an automaker that wrote the book on assembling complex machines at an unprecedented pace, Ford is primed for quick pivots in manufacturing, whether to health care equipment, airplanes, or submarines.
In 1914, less than a year after Ford rolled its first Model T off the newly invented moving assembly line, World War I broke out in Europe. As the war raged, Ford used its River Rouge Complex in Dearborn, Michigan, to build submarines, turning out boats at a record-setting clip just a year after breaking ground on the facility. River Rouge would eventually become the largest factory in the world upon its completion in 1928. It’s still in operation today, producing the company’s F-150 truck.
However, it was World War II where Ford put all of its manufacturing muscle into wartime production, and once again broke records and barriers. The Willow Run plant–located between Ypsilanti Township and Belleville, Michigan–featured a mile-long assembly line, the first assembly line to produce airplanes. Throughout the war effort, the plant built 86,865 complete aircraft with a workforce of more than one-third women (the iconic “Rosie the Riveter” campaign was inspired by women at the plant). The ability to manage such feats sprang from the company’s core competency: build complex machines to the highest standard as efficiently as possible.
“As a company, we’ve always had a capacity to make things at scale and then leverage that to the needs of the day,” says Price. Building a car or truck requires thousands of parts and specialized processes—turns out building a plane or submarine isn’t much different. And when you have high morale, making that switch is something everyone gets behind.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, that’s exactly what Ford employees did. “A lot of people felt that they wanted to do something but didn’t know what to do, and they felt sort of helpless,” explains Price. “Ford created a rallying point that people could rush toward.”
Throughout its history, Ford has applied this manufacturing skill to other health emergencies, too. In 1941, premature birth was a major cause of infant mortality, but it was mostly preventable. Rural areas often lacked incubators, so Henry Ford gathered a group of doctors and engineers to create a portable version in the same facility where submarines were built for World War I.
The team ended up fully redesigning and rebuilding incubators, making them more accessible and effective. Not long after that, production engineers responded to the polio epidemic, making small but impactful design changes to the iron lung machines that kept so many children alive.
The company’s response to the coronavirus is a continuation of a legacy of stepping up to a challenge in a time of need. Applying the same manufacturing, sourcing, and design prowess used for making vehicles, Ford was able to build 50,000 ventilators and 10,000 powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs), along with millions of PPE. For Price, the experience was special. He saw how working under a shared vision knocked down a lot of the barriers to swiftly making great strides.
“It’s not a one-off. This is what happens in times of crisis at Ford,” Price says. “It’s who we are—each and every one of us at the company. Everyone has a role to play.”
The ability to pivot from making vehicles to submarines to planes to health care equipment is a skill the company has honed since the beginning. It’s rooted in technical and logistical know-how but inspired by the desire to simply do the right thing when the situation asks. Part of the takeaway of these pivots throughout history, according to Price, is the importance of protecting manufacturing.
“No one could have predicted what this pandemic would be like a year ago,” says Price. “When there’s a different kind of crisis, having manufacturing capacities and talent that can be brought to bear is really important.”
While Ford has turned the bulk of its attention back to making vehicles, the company is set to deliver millions of additional PPE to health care workers and communities in need over the next year. And while the future remains uncertain, one thing is clear: When a crisis calls, Ford and its 260,000 American workers will be ready to answer.