DETROIT -- Ford Motor Co. is expanding its unexpected foray into medical-supply manufacturing to include production of respirators, face masks and reusable gowns made from airbag material. It also is helping to increase production of collection kits used to test patients for COVID-19.
The automaker said it has started making face masks at a transmission plant in Sterling Heights, Mich., and will begin assembling respirators Tuesday near its Mustang plant in Flat Rock, Mich. Ford initially will pay about 120 UAW-represented workers who have volunteered for the assignments and expects to add 50 more workers as production of the face masks increases.
Ford also is working with airbag supplier Joyson Safety Systems to make reusable gowns for health care workers and helping Thermo Fisher Scientific increase production of COVID-19 test collection kits. Joyson expects to cut and sew 100,000 gowns a week starting next week, for a total of 1.3 million gowns by July 4.
The gowns use a coated, nylon-based material normally used for Ford airbags that is well-suited for protecting health care workers from COVID-19.
"This was really a great find, that we could take something we already knew how to produce and turn it into isolation gowns, and they are washable," Marcy Fisher, Ford's director of body exterior and interior engineering, said on a conference call Monday.
The face masks will be for internal use at Ford facilities around the world, including plant workers after the company is able to resume vehicle production. Ford also is seeking certification for medical use.
Ford said it expects to make at least 100,000 powered air-purifying respirators, which have a hood and face shield to cover medical professionals' head and shoulders. The company worked with 3M to design the respirators in less than four weeks. Ford and 3M plan to donate any profits from the respirators to charities related to COVID-19 treatment.
Ford helped Thermo Fisher set up additional machinery that will triple production of collection kits starting April 20.
Ford also has been making face shields for several weeks in Plymouth, Mich. As of Monday, it has made more than 3 million of them.