In late March, two days before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a stay-home order for all state residents, General Motors Co. approached Esys Automation with a challenge.
The automaker wanted the division of Holland-based JR Automation to help build an assembly line capable of producing 50,000 face masks a day to provide to health care workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Normally, such a project would take six months to develop, but General Motors’ timeline was much more aggressive: The line needed to be operational as soon as possible, said Esys Automation President Chris Marcus.
The teams at Esys and JR Automation worked with GM to develop the line in just six days.
More than 30 engineers, designers, buyers and manufacturing team members were asked to help with the development of the masks, which will be used as personal protective equipment.
As the highly contagious COVID-19 continues to spread exponentially from person to person, time is of the essence to deploy protective equipment. Health care workers locally and nationally are facing a massive shortage of vital medical equipment in the wake of the pandemic.
Esys Automation, a full-service automation and systems integrator located in Auburn Hills, works mostly within the automotive industry and has had a close relationship with GM for the past 20 years, Marcus told MiBiz.
“It was not surprising that they reached out to us,” Marcus said. “They typically involve us in urgent projects. This was a little extreme and out of the ordinary, but we have a reputation for being able to deliver fast and on time.”
As the world continues to fight the spread of the outbreak, GM has become one of the many manufacturers rushing to shift their operations to produce the health care products that will be needed to save lives. Robots and automation are playing a critical role in building these products quickly and safely as humans shift to remote working.
“When we talk about these things, like medical masks are a great example, the volumes that are needed are so great that you can only do it with automation to really attack the problem,” Marcus said.
GM said it will produce an estimated 1.5 million masks per month at full capacity. The company also is preparing a line that will manufacture parts for at least 200,000 ventilators.
The Society of Critical Care Medicine has projected that 960,000 coronavirus patients in the U.S. may need to be put on ventilators at one point or another because of the deadly pandemic. However, the nation as a whole has only about 200,000 of the machines, according to the organization.
JR Automation worked across multiple fronts to implement the production of the face masks, while GM cleared approximately 31,000 square feet of space at a plant in Warren to contain the mask production lines and crews installed new electrical service lines.
The firm’s engineering and build teams in Nashville and Holland provided input and shared their expertise on this type of system with Esys Automation. As well, JR Automation’s in-house machining and fabrication department designed and built customized machinery to assemble the masks. Controls and mechanical engineering teams worked in parallel with the supply chain team throughout JR Automation to secure all components, despite many supply chains being disrupted or paused by the crisis.
“We involved heavily our division in Nashville as well as our division in Holland, so all three came together to make it happen in various levels, some types of technical aspects and very much in a supply chain aspect,” Marcus said. “Pulling that thing together so fast while the supply chain was shutting down was probably the biggest challenge.”
Builders at Esys Automation worked around the clock to assemble components. On March 27, GM produced its first mask in response to the COVID-19 crisis using the line that JR Automation built in six days.
Even with new robotics, the line will take about 20 employees to run initially — people who would otherwise be considered “non-essential” and face layoffs — but it could still be fully automated eventually, Marcus said.
Streamlining the process
Wyoming-based Die-Tech and Engineering Inc. utilized automation in a process to rapidly build a die that was urgently needed for making ventilator components. The company typically builds die-casts and plastic injection molds for products in the automotive and furniture industries.
Usually, the company quotes 10 to 12 weeks for a full design and build of a new tool, according to Adam Berry, a manufacturing engineer at Die-Tech.
“We understood the opportunity we had to use our expertise and hopefully make a difference in this crisis somehow and immediately got suppliers and service providers on the phone and on board to help us build these tools as fast as possible,” Berry told MiBiz.
The company uses more than a dozen linear 5-axis CNC machining centers with automated tool changing and workpiece measuring, as well as automated robots that change workpieces in the machine and keep track of graphite electrodes, according to Berry. The company also uses 3-D scanning to verify the dimensional accuracy of many of the machined components.
“The nature of die and mold building is more one-off projects than it is mass production, so the Industry 4.0 automation most people think of is not necessarily always applicable to us, but in as many of the areas that we can, we have streamlined and automated much of the process,” he said.
The technology helped Die-Tech build and deliver the die for ventilator parts in just five days.
“This is certainly the shortest lead time we’ve accomplished on a project of this size,” Berry said.
Since the initial project, Die-Tech has designed, built and shipped five more die-cast tools that produce nine different ventilator components.
Additive manufacturing is another tool that has been heavily expanded in the current crisis.
For example, the same 3-D printers that are used to produce automotive or airplane parts are now used to produce facemasks and respiratory ventilators.
Zeeland-based office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller Inc. worked with Holland Hospital to use 3-D printing to engineer special paper masks for frontline health care workers. The company is also changing its manufacturing lines to make hospital mattresses.
Typically, robotics and automation equipment for reconfigurations take weeks to build, according to Mark Ermatinger, CEO of Zeeland-based Industrial Control Service Inc. However, Industrial Control has been offering the robots that the company typically stocks in its own lab for demonstrations and research to companies that are rapidly changing their lines.
“We’ve had some of those ‘pants on fire’ projects that we’ve been scrambling to get equipment for because it takes so long to get equipment from Japan or from Europe,” Ermatinger told MiBiz. “Two weeks would be super, super fast for our industry, but the stuff I’ve got on my floor we can even deploy today.”
Among the solutions that are ready for immediate use are 3-D vision systems that can help robots learn to pick up new parts from conveyors, self-driving floor robots, laser marking solutions that can mark directly on test kits or ventilators, and flexible part feeding systems for robot pick-up and assembly on indexing tables.
Industrial Control also can help manufacturers through a network of other demo machines at other distributors nationally through the Association of High-Tech Distributors, according to Ermatinger.
“We can help anybody that is trying to fight that battle with the coronavirus,” he said.