With 3M's help, 90 Ford workers will begin assembling 100,000 powered air-purifying respirators (PAPR) on Tuesday at the automaker's Vreeland plant in Michigan.
Project Apollo, as it is called, began 25 days ago when the two companies announced a partnership as front-line health workers needed more protective equipment as they care for those with COVID-19.
3M helped Ford redesign a new and simpler PAPR after Ford announced temporary closures of its U.S. auto plants.
Ford unleashed its manufacturing and design professionals "to get scrappy and start making personal protection equipment and help increase the availability and production of ventilators," said Jim Baumbick, vice president of Ford Enterprise Product Line Management, during a conference call Monday.
3M and Ford started working together as automakers closed down their vehicle assembly lines because of the coronavirus epidemic and were looking for ways to help get needed products to front-line workers during the crisis.
General Motors is making ventilators at one of its Indiana plants.
In addition to 3M, Ford also is working with other partners to make 3 million protective and disposable face shields, virus-collection test kits and up to 1.3 million washable medical gowns that are made from the same material as auto air bags. Ford is working with GE Healthcare on producing ventilators.
"We knew that to play our part helping combat coronavirus, we had to go like hell and join forces with experts like 3M to expand production of urgently needed medical equipment and supplies," Baumbick said.
Mike Kesti, global technical director of 3M's Personal Safety Division, said the air-purifying respirators have traditionally been made in 3M's plant in Valley, Neb.
Since the two companies partnered, Ford engineers were embedded in the Nebraska factory, the PAPR was redesigned and simplified, Kesti said. Now the product being made at the Ford plant near Flat Rock, Mich., can be effective in a low-dust environment like hospitals, he said.
Normally, the products have HEPA filtration systems, hoods and hoses calibrated to work in high-dust environments such as construction, metalworking, pharmaceutical and factory sites.
The new product will feature an air-blower system — similar to the fan found in Ford's F-150 ventilated seats. The fan will continue to be powered by a rechargeable, portable battery that will keep the respirator in constant use for up to eight hours.
The product is very different from an N95 mask, but the Ford PAPR respirator also will be able to block 95% of particulates.
3M is the largest supplier of N95 masks and has been increasing production of them at the Nebraska plant and another in South Dakota. This month, they will produce 35 million. By June, it will be 50 million monthly.
In the meantime, 3M is also importing 166.5 million N95 masks from its overseas factories, including one in China, to meet the needs of the federal government over the next three months.
Ford must still obtain final approval by National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) for the PAPR respirators being made in Michigan. That approval is expected by the end of April.
Upon approval, 3M will distribute the new PAPRs through its U.S. network to help bring these technologies quickly and efficiently to health care workers who urgently need them, officials said.
3M and Ford said they will donate any profits from the sale of the PAPR to coronavirus-related nonprofits.
"We are proud to stand together with Ford in this effort, as they have helped us increase manufacturing of existing 3M PPE products and, together, we have rapidly designed a new PAPR to help protect health care professionals on the front lines fighting COVID-19," said Bernard Cicut, 3M Personal Safety Division vice president.
"UAW Ford members continue to step up and volunteer to work during this difficult time as we expand at the facility across from Flat Rock to make respirators and at the Van Dyke Transmission Plant to make face masks for medical use," said Gerald Kariem, the United Auto Workers' vice president and its director for Ford.