The Canadian auto industry is awakening to an unprecedented challenge in securing steady sources of personal protective equipment (PPE) amid skyrocketing global demand. And automakers, suppliers and dealers are all sounding the alarm.
“It’s almost like we’re going to have to have a new element of the automotive supply chain operating in lockstep, just like seating plants operate in lockstep with the assembly plants,” said Brendan Sweeney, managing director for the Trillium Network for Advanced Manufacturing.
“Just like if there’s a bottleneck or a disruption at a seating plant, will a bottleneck or a disruption at a plant making face masks or face shields or sanitizer, will that shut an assembly plant down for two hours if a shipment is running late?”
Global demand for PPE has surged across virtually every sector during the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the closures of Canadian assembly plants in mid-March. That urgent need for PPE, particularly for frontline healthcare workers,prompted many automakers and suppliers in North America, including Canada, to manufacture masks and other equipment while auto production was shut down.
Demand is expected to remain high, at least in the coming months, as industries find ways to safely come back online without causing new COVID-19 outbreaks. The automotive industry and other manufacturers also figure to be third in line for securing PPE, behind health care and critical infrastructure, said Sweeney.
“Hospitals get first crack at the PPE ... and get the medical-grade PPE, no arguments there. And then, power plants because without electricity, Toyota isn’t going to build cars without power.”
‘WILD, WILD WEST’
Jonathon Azzopardi, CEO of supplier Laval International, based in Windsor, Ont., said the market for PPE such as face masks has been flooded by imported masks that are not as effective as N95 and other in-demand, medical-grade masks. Prices for masks across the board have also skyrocketed, he said, with N95 masks on the market rising to as high as $12 each during the COVID-19 pandemic, up from around $2 before.
“If you’re willing to buy stuff that’s lower quality, you can buy lots,” he said. “If you’re willing to spend money on masks that are uncertified, stuff is out there. But you shouldn’t do that.”
A survey of 61 companies conducted by the Canadian Association of Mold Makers the week of April 28 found that 43 per cent of respondents reported that they did not have sufficient PPE to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“If you want the quality stuff that you probably should have, it’s going to be tough,” Azzopardi said, comparing the market to the “wild, wild west.”
Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association (APMA), said that while “it might be a challenge” to secure PPE, the type of equipment the auto industry will need is in greater supply than medical-grade masks that front-line health care workers need.
“We’re not talking N95 masks. We’re talking level 2 or 3 masks. Those are in much bigger abundance,” he said.
Azzopardi, however, said many of the masks on the market have been proven to be relatively ineffective when compared with an N95 mask, singling out KN95 masks imported from China. Many companies were being forced to choose between purchasing imported masks of subpar quality in bulk or risk not having enough PPE in stock, he said.
“In essence, the situation was created by us. We did it to ourselves. We totally mothballed regional manufacturing” of PPE in Canada, he said.
Tim Galbraith, director of sales at Windsor’s Cavalier Tool and Manufacturing, said ensuring an adequate supply of top-quality PPE is key to allaying employees’ fears about returning to work. “One of the biggest things we’re concerned about is worker anxiety,” said Galbraith. “We need to make sure that we do everything we can to make you comfortable in your work environment. Anxiety among team members will only breed more anxiety.”
‘READY TO ROLL’
Many automakers and larger suppliers, meanwhile, have invested resources to build their own masks.
LouAnn Gosselin, spokeswoman for FCA Canada, said the company has production capacity to produce face masks in China and was in the process of converting plants in Michigan and Brazil to do the same. She said FCA would have the capacity to make 7.5 million masks per month by early June “to support its internal needs, as well as for donation to first responders and health care workers.”
Unifor President Jerry Dias said the Detroit Three automakers have told the union that they have “a full supply” of PPE for members who to returned to work the week of May 18. One of the reasons many auto companies have gotten into manufacturing of medical supplies is to ensure they have enough for themselves, he said.
“They’re telling us that they’re ready to roll.”
Automakers, suppliers and unions spent much of the manufacturing downtime to devise ways to make assembly lines and factory floors safe. Practices at many plants were expected to include temperature checks, assigned seating in break rooms and barriers installed between workstations that are unable to be at least two metres apart, as well as giving workers face masks and shields to wear.
Dealerships were also looking to secure PPE as they implement health-and-safety protocols. Some automakers were helping retailers by purchasing equipment in bulk or by covering part of their costs.
Still, some dealers voiced concerns about adequate supply. “We were well supplied with PPE prior to the pandemic but as our stock is dwindling and we look to source more, there seems to be a scarcity of available gloves, masks, etc.,” Trent Hargrave, general manager of Riverside Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram in Prince Albert, Sask., said in an email. “We are working with our suppliers and trying to find new sources of equipment just to have redundancy in case of actual shortage.”
Some dealers are outfitting their vehicle cleaning crews with hazmat suits, gloves, goggles and face masks.
“We’re ordering 500 masks at a time,” said Alex Digenis, who owns two franchised dealerships and a used-vehicle store in Ontario’s Niagara region.
“Try to get hand sanitizing gel right now. I had to track down a warehouse in Hamilton (about 45 kilometres away) to get the hand gel.”
Grace Macaluso contributed to this report.