American Carmaker Produces Face Masks From Transmission Factory

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GM moved fast to convert a shuttered transmission plant for protective mask production.

General Motors has been in the news recently for, among other things, its voluntary efforts to start producing ventilators for the treatment of novel coronavirus patients.

But it isn't just ventilators that GM is contributing for the cause. At the same time the automaker's Kokomo, Indiana plant is preparing to produce those lifesaving devices, another factory is scrambling to put out millions of protective masks for frontline workers. The effort launched on March 20, and just a week later, the first samples were rolling off the assembly line.

GM is making use of its existing supply chain to source materials like the metal nose pieces, elastic straps, and fabric filter material necessary for mask production, and relying largely on its own engineering and design talent for the project.

John F. Martin via General Motors
John F. Martin via General Motors
John F. Martin via General Motors

In all, GM called upon the efforts of more than 30 engineers, designers, buyers, and manufacturing team members to develop the masks, source the materials and equipment for their production, and plan out the manufacturing process. It may seem like a small thing pivoting from the production of complex items, like a transmission for a Chevrolet Malibu or an Impala, to making protective masks, but such vastly different goods require vastly different manufacturing equipment.

So, General Motors reached out to JR Automation and Esys Automation in Michigan for help designing and building the custom machinery required. The company cleared out some 31,000 square feet at its shuttered Warren Transmission plant to house the equipment, and got to work producing masks to fight COVID-19 in record time.

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John F. Martin via General Motors
John F. Martin via General Motors

GM is hoping to make its first delivery of 20,000 protective masks for coronavirus frontline workers on April 8th, and the automaker is targeting an ambitious rate of production of 50,000 masks per day - about 1.5 million a month - by the time the line gets fully up to speed.

The mask-making team at GM didn't just make their goal, says GM VP of Global Manufacturing Engineer Peter Thom. "They over-delivered. They actually beat our deadline, running the first mask through the equipment 30 minutes ahead of target."

"We're excited because this means we're even closer to being able to protect the healthcare teams who are working tirelessly to save lives."

John F. Martin via General Motors
John F. Martin via General Motors
John F. Martin via General Motors

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