Auto parts factories retool to make medical equipment, while worry grows over sector's future
Parts plants now making things like face shields and gowns, but it doesn't replace auto-sector revenue
"Our generation has had life so good for the longest time — this is almost our world war three," says Joe D'Angelo about the COVID-19 pandemic.
D'Angelo is the president of Mitchell Plastics, an auto parts company that normally employs 2,800 people in factories across North America. It manufactures centre consoles for cars and trucks, supplying many of the world's largest automakers.
COVID-19 has shuttered that business.
D'Angelo could have turned the lights out at his factory in Kitchener, Ont., but instead he's using the facility to help in the fight against the virus.
"We want to have an impact," says D'Angelo, as he tours the factory his engineers have retooled to make plastic face shields, a piece of personal protective equipment (PPE) needed for health care workers.
"We want to hear that there's no longer this shortage of PPE out there, and hope that one day we can say we had an impact to improve the situation."
D'Angelo is not the only auto-parts maker who has joined the fight against COVID-19.
Flavio Volpe is the president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers' Association — he represents 300 companies. He says the only way Canadians were ever going to get all the PPE needed to fight COVID-19 was if the auto sector was able to convert some of their factories to do it.
"It's like in World War Two when we were making planes and boats and guns," Volpe says.
"Just like in a war, during a pandemic the people who are on the front lines need things to get between them and the enemy."
Since the pandemic started, Volpe has been working as a middleman between auto parts companies and different levels of government trying to get everyone the information they need.
In recent weeks his stress and anxiety has grown, and he says sleep can be a problem.
"I get messages and emails from front-line workers who are in tears," Volpe says. "They read the news and they say 'we're there to serve, and we're going to show up to work, but we're in danger — can you help?' And I say we're trying our best. How can you sleep when you get that?"
D'Angelo says the stakes are so high when it comes to protecting health-care workers from the virus that he didn't wait for an order to start modifying his assembly line to make face shields. He told his staff to figure out how to make face shields before he even had someone to take them.
"We just jumped on it," D'Angelo says. "We bought the materials and started making the shields before we had an order. We just knew that the demand was there."
The company is now able to manufacture around 18,000 shields a day. The day CBC News visited the Kitchener factory, the company was about to deliver its first shipment to the Ontario government.
While the province pays for the shields, making PPE isn't a money-making venture for Mitchell Plastics when you consider the work that went into designing the products and the retrofitting of the factory. In fact, the company may lose money on the venture.
"It's just the right thing to do," D'Angelo says.
The race to mass produce test swabs
In total, Mitchell Plastics aims to deliver somewhere around half a million face shields to front-line workers to be used in hospitals and nursing homes.
Recently, the company was contacted to see if it could also mass produce COVID-19 testing swabs. D'Angelo asked his engineers to get to work on the problem.
The director of engineering at the company, Jason Fraser, says making the plastic swabs hasn't been all that difficult, it's the necessary sterilization that's been a challenge.
"Obviously we don't need to do that with auto parts," he says.
"I was born and raised in Canada and have lived in Ontario my entire life," he adds. "It gives me and my group a huge sense of pride to be able to help out all Canadians in this challenging time."
The next challenge for Fraser is certification.
He's sent sample swabs to the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg, where they are being tested to see if they meet rigorous medical industry specifications.
If the swabs pass, then Mitchell Plastics will conduct additional sterilization testing before it begins mass production and distribution.
A lot of failure — a lot of success
It's been challenging for the auto parts sector to shift gears.
When the pandemic first started, Volpe says 165 companies reached out to volunteer their production facilities.
"They said 'send us the specifications, explain the volumes and we will tell you if we can do it or not,'" says Volpe.
However, there were a lot of failures as companies attempted to manufacture what was needed, but realized they weren't able to, Volpe says. Of the 165 companies, 77 came through with proposals saying they could make items needed by health-care workers.
So far, 25 of those companies are producing things like ventilators, face shields, and gowns.
A plant in Tilbury, Ont., that normally makes vehicle airbags, for example, now produces material for medical gowns.
Another nearby auto parts company is manufacturing masks.
Volpe stresses that for auto parts companies, making PPE doesn't even come close to replacing the income from the auto industry, due to the cost of making moulds and prototypes and getting them certified.
"If a company makes a mould [for PPE], then they are out $60,000 to $90,000 in a time when they are getting no revenue," says Volpe.
By the time a company sends a prototype for sterilized testing at a federal microbiology lab, Volpe points out, they have likely spent more than $350,000.
"But they just did it," he says. "This is the most wasteful, from a business perspective, the most wasteful exercise anyone could be involved in. And they're only doing it because it matters. And I love it."
A uncertain future
In fact, Volpe says working to defeat COVID-19 has been one of the most rewarding things he's ever done.
Still, that doesn't mean he isn't worried about the auto industry post-pandemic.
"I get paid to worry about the health of the companies," Volpe says.
His main concern is that some auto parts manufacturers won't make it through the pandemic.
"You go two to three months without revenue and you burn through working capital, and there are going to be failures," he says.
"This is the industrial engine of Ontario and one of the industrial engines of Canada. And we're all very proud of an industry that has been around for 120 years, but there are going to be companies that don't come out of this," Volpe warns.
Meanwhile, D'Angelo wonders how many people will want to buy a car even when the economy opens back up. He says before the shutdown there was a 70-day supply of cars in North America. With the new reality of a struggling economy, he wonders if that supply of unsold cars would now last 200 days.
"You would hate to think that this can go on past the end of May," he says.
"Any longer than that, it's really an ugly situation. We are concerned about other suppliers that may fail, and once the whole supply chain starts to break down we'll never be able to put a car together anymore."
D'Angelo has worked his entire adult life to build his company up to what it is today, with facilities all over the world.
It's remarkable growth, considering that in 1997 when he and his partner first started in the auto business, their company was so small D'Angelo jokes there were only 14 people at the staff Christmas party.
Just prior to the COVID-19 shutdowns, the facility in Kitchener usually employed about 700 people over three shifts.
Now there are only 30 people working in the plant to make the face shields — all of them volunteer company staff who don't normally work on the machines.
D'Angelo says it's hard to see his factory so empty.
"Usually this plant is humming. There's a buzz, you can just feel it being very productive, it's full of people working hard. It's kind of heartbreaking.
"But making the face shields gives us a glimmer of hope in an otherwise very bad situation."