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Humans of Manufacturing: Heroes

Auto Parts Makers 'Jump Into the Fire' of Medical Gear Production As Canada Faces Shortages

In times of need, manufacturing is driven by a philosophy John Lennon said best, “There are no problems, only solutions.” Today, manufacturers have pivoted to produce the critical supplies and equipment necessary to battle COVID-19 at a rate never seen before. SME’s Humans of Manufacturing Heroes Edition tells the stories of the teams, companies and partnerships adapting to produce the tools needed to fight this global pandemic. Going behind the scenes to share how these once-in-a-lifetime transformations are happening and the people making it all possible.

Last month, when Flavio Volpe put out a call to auto parts makers to assist in the production of medical supplies, the president of the Canadian Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association wasn’t convinced that the industry, often pressured by cost and process efficiency, would be able to pull it off.

The president of the Canadian Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association Flavio Volpe receiving a delivery of masks at The Woodbridge Group’s headquarters.

Yet, in the past three weeks more than 165 companies stepped up to volunteer, including two dozen that have already received Department of Health Canada certification and started making masks, ventilators, face shields, gowns and test swabs.

“We jumped in, without asking questions, without a guarantee of purchase orders or covering of prototyping costs, into the fire,” Volpe said. “Because if we hadn't, who else would supply these implements at a time when we needed them yesterday?”

The industry’s overwhelming response is part of the country-wide push to ramp up production of medical and personal protective equipment after the European Union implemented temporary export restrictions in March in a bid to ease pressure on the bloc’s healthcare facilities amid the looming COVID-19 pandemic.

Faced with shortages, Canada announced wartime-like procurement measures to mobilize private companies and earmarked $2 billion towards the production and purchase of necessary supplies such as ventilators, surgical masks and rapid-testing kits.

“The entire world is trying to get their hands on the various equipment needed to fight this virus and that is why we know it will be important to have ‘Made in Canada’ solutions,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during a press conference. “I’m incredibly proud of Canadian companies, suppliers and manufacturers that are stepping up and saying ‘we want to help.’”

Earlier in April, winter clothing manufacturer Canada Goose said it will reopen all of its eight facilities to produce up to 1.5 million medical scrubs and patient gowns, with plans to donate any unintentional profits to national COVID-19 relief funds. Meanwhile, hockey equipment maker Bauer began designing plastic face shields, sharing its prototype with other manufacturers.

While the large-scale production capacity of the automotive sector can usually quickly meet supply needs, companies still face challenges when it comes to retooling their factories for medical equipment, which often requires multiple components and Health Canada certifications, Volpe said.

“We were able to tap into the strength of the organizations that allows us to make billions of car parts, and convert that talent to this project. I've never been part of anything so collaborative and everyone is doing it for the right reasons.”
Martin Mazza, Vice President of External Affairs at the Woodbridge Group

At The Woodbridge Group, switching from the production of headliners, foam seating and other materials for the automotive industry to high-filtration masks felt like an extreme change, said Martin Mazza, the vice president of external affairs. Sprinting against time, the company decided to localize the design and production of a urethane mask developed by its Japanese partner INOAC Corp, which was entrenched in the battlefields of the coronavirus outbreak weeks ahead of North America.

“It really saved us several months of development, so that was a key differentiator,” Mazza said.

The joint venture, Woodbridge INOAC Technical Products (WITP), converted its manufacturing facilities in Chattanooga, Tenn., Kitchener, Ontario and Woodbridge, Ontario to produce as many as 15 million masks. The group makes specialized urethane, a medical grade elastic polyester, which is then die cut, assembled, packaged and distributed in Ontario.

“Given that the product application is so different, nothing was designed to do this,” Mazza said, noting that one significant adjustment requires changing how the material is loaded and removed from the cutting machines. “Although we had the infrastructure, it had to be modified to work in this environment.”

Martin Mazza, the vice president of external affairs at the Woodbridge Group.

Once the engineers understood the outcome and expectations, “they put their great minds together to figure out how they could make it happen,” he said.

Testing masks for usability turned out to be another challenge. Because Canada doesn’t have a certified method, WITP had to turn to engineers and researchers at McMaster University and National Research Council to help duplicate testing for filtration, breathability and comfort. The results were confirmed by an accredited U.S. lab.

Meanwhile, the company’s purchasing and logistics teams worked around the clock, securing a pipeline of new materials from suppliers in Canada, the U.S. and China.

WITP has been collaborating with Canadian governments as well as with U.S. officials, task forces, several major hospital systems and other municipalities and organizations. The joint venture also partnered with Hematite, Inc., Magna International, Inc., TS Tech Americas, Inc. and Toyota Boshoku Canada.

“We were able to tap into the strength of the organizations that allows us to make billions of car parts, and convert that talent to this project,” said Mazza. “I've never been part of anything so collaborative and everyone is doing it for the right reasons.”

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