The ramp-up of auto production will resemble a slow-moving steam engine slowly leaving the station in an effort to eventually reach full speed as companies adjust to tepid consumer demand and new health and safety protocols that could make plants less efficient and require costly, structural renovations.
With most automakers and suppliers in North America now returning to production — Honda began on May 12 while FCA and GM were back at it this week — new health procedures are likely to affect productivity, said Honda Canada CEO Jean Marc Leclerc.
“If you do this in a production environment, there’s going to be efficiencies lost,” Leclerc said in an April interview with Automotive News Canada. just prior to the automaker’s return to Civic assembly in Alliston, Ont. “Sometimes there [are] two people in a car riveting this and riveting that. If that can’t happen and there’s only one person in a car at a time, there are going to be efficiencies lost.
“But those are things that are absolutely necessary because you have to protect employees.”
Brendan Sweeney, managing director of the Trillium Network for Advanced Manufacturing, said it would be “a couple months, at least” until production returns to pre-pandemic speeds.
FRESH AIR SAFER, COSTS MONEY
Meanwhile, safety also will cost money.
General Motors Canada, for example, is upgrading its air ventilation and filtration at the CAMI plant in Ingersoll, Ont., where the Chevrolet Equinox crossover is made.
The automaker will modify all general ventilation air houses at CAMI to run with 100-per-cent fresh-air intake, “effectively quadrupling our fresh-air intake running with zero recirculation,” said Mike Van Boekel, Unifor Local 88 plant chair.
“Normally at this time of year, we are running at about 25-per-cent freshair intake, and 75 per cent is recirculated air. The cost is obviously going to go up.”
One of the recommendations from the Ontario government is to introduce more fresh air into workplaces by increasing the ventilation system’s air intake or opening doors and windows while avoiding central recirculation where possible.
GM Canada spokeswoman Jennifer Wright wouldn’t immediately say how much that would cost the automaker.
GM will also turn on “as many exhaust fans as possible,” the union said.
The automaker also increased the size of break areas, added tables and spaced them out to keep people a safe distance from each other when they return to work.
“The workplace is going to look different for everyone,” Wright said.
FCA Canada, in Windsor, Ont., alone, has added six medical tents, six trailers and 12 thermal imaging temperature checks in its parking lots. It will also distribute at least 12,000 masks every day. Similar measures are in place at the automaker’s Brampton, Ont., plant where the Chrysler 300, Dodge Challenger and Dodge Charger are built.
LESSONS FROM LINAMAR
In late April, Linamar Corp. CEO Linda Hasenfratz said the Ontario-based supplier would draw on lessons learned from reopening plants in China, which had the world’s first COVID-19 outbreak, and Europe as the company reopens its North American factories.
“We’ve worked hard as an industry collaboratively with ourselves, our customers and other suppliers to compare best practice ideas, looking at what we’ve learned in China, to come up with some really solid protocols because we all realize the rest of the economy is watching us,” Hasenfratz said in an interview with the Financial Post.
“If we can come back safely, it means that everyone can come back safely,” she said.
Linamar has “five key principles” regarding reopenings, Hasenfratz said: providing health screenings for employees, providing personal protective equipment, enacting distancing measures and providing enhanced cleaning and contact tracing procedures if a worker falls ill.
“We’ll know exactly who was where,” Hasenfratz said. “Although they will be separated by six feet from other people, in the unlikely event that someone does test positive, we know exactly who was in their radius and can get in touch with people who may have been exposed.”
Any ramp-up in production will be “gradual” as automakers and dealers move through their current inventories and adjust to a lower annualized selling rate in North America, Peter Hatges, KPMG national automotive sector leader, said during an April webinar hosted by the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association.
“We’ll have to wait until November and December to see just how well the recovery is taking hold and what they’re going to do with inventories that are on hand today. We’ve got a lot of inventory. It’s going to be an issue.”
The Trillium Network’s Sweeney said many of the procedures enacted during the pandemic are likely to remain in place even after COVID-19 subsides.
“I think we may find that moving forward,” he said, “the onus will no longer be on the employee to stay home but on the [employer] to have procedures in place to make sure they stay home if they feel ill, and they may not get as sick anymore because of procedures.”