With spring upon us, and COVID-19 cases happily in decline, it is natural to look ahead, wanting to leave all the past two years of difficulties and challenges behind. But that would be a mistake.
Although we are fortunate that the community currently seems better equipped to handle COVID-19 – thanks to the dedication of healthcare professionals, first aiders and scientists around the world – the automotive industry learned valuable experiences in 2020 when it rose to help confront global pandemic.
Some OEMs and suppliers donated to emergency services. Others provided food and essentials. Perhaps most notably, many did what they are best at: They made things on a massive scale. Together, they helped produce thousands of units of personal protective equipment (PPE) – tools that were essential to protect healthcare professionals who put their own lives at risk to save others. We are eternally grateful for their courageous efforts, which continue today.
At Denso, we performed similar activities, but then a customer received a unique and urgent request: Ford needed support to develop motorized air-purifying respirators for front-line workers.
Inspired, our employees and supply chain partners went into action. And in just 25 days, the joint team designed, produced and delivered key parts to the project, contributing to Ford’s production of over 30,000 respirators. Although we are grateful for the partnership and resilience of all involved, this was no easy feat. Completing it required a fresh understanding of how our teams worked, pushing us to collaborate with each other and our supply chain in unprecedented ways and to work at speeds never reached before.
As we move towards a mobility future defined by new technology and new ways of doing business, a similar approach will be crucial for the success of OEMs and suppliers.
Three main elements will be crucial: end-to-end supply-chain collaboration, agile development and additive manufacturing.
In Ford’s project, the condensed time frame required participants to work in locked steps across global supply chains, encouraging designers, engineers and production teams to work coherently. Bringing everyone to the table at once encouraged on-site decision-making and set production plans in motion quickly – making years-long processes days and weeks only.
This emphasis on close connection between OEM and its supply base was further strengthened by the Group’s implementation of agile development. In this, we prioritized flexibility over established procedures, instant feedback over bureaucracy and step-by-step progress over passivity, all while meeting customer requirements and focusing on high quality. This not only helped to promote the project, but also fostered a culture where fresh thinking and solutions came first. We had a common, galvanizing purpose that motivated us to deliver.
The streamlined approach was important, but so was the use of additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3D printing. The technology, which quickly transforms digital designs into real-world creations, enabled rapid prototyping. Compared to traditional processes that are slower and do not allow for fast iterations, teams were able to create and improve prototypes at a much faster speed. This process accelerated the tool and opened the door to more flexible production performance by creating parallel paths to design, testing, and manufacturing line preparation.
Although additive manufacturing is not a new technology, it was the key to the success of the Ford project. Similar applications of this technology on a larger scale than prototype development will be contributing to the future of the automotive industry as vehicle needs change at faster intervals.
Although the efforts are not the same, takeaways from PPE projects like this show how companies will have to adapt to thrive in our continuously evolving industry – an industry that is increasingly dependent on electrification, autonomy and connectivity. Fundamental changes to the products we produce should provide fundamental changes in how we create them.
Many have already done this during the fight against COVID-19. It has opened our eyes to how the same principles that were invented in this time – speed, collaboration and innovation – can help our industry navigate our rapidly changing present and future. We can and should do this, not only to improve the mobility of all, but to create a better world.
Sergio Pujols (picture, top left) is Vice President-Energy Management Engineering for Denso.