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Auto manufacturers lead in Canada’s historic industrial mobilization

Flavio Volpe, President of the Automotive Parts and Manufacturer’s Association of Canada, on the mobilization of industrial capacity during COVID-19.

We’re all doing our best to help. That’s what we need right now.

For most of us, that means staying inside, respecting the call for physical distancing and, for those with the resources, giving what we can to charities and hospitals.

For many companies, this means offering their products for free or creating new products/services that will help individuals, businesses and communities cope with COVID-19.

Some companies, though, have the capacity and know-how to provide even more tangible support in the form of new ventilators, face shields, masks and gowns. Ontario’s powerful automotive manufacturing industry, which includes five OEMs, 700 parts suppliers and a workforce of 45,000, has stepped up during the COVID-19 crisis. Alongside manufacturers in other industries, they have helped achieve the largest peacetime mobilization of industrial capacity in Canada’s history.

It’s an incredible achievement.

To get a better idea of how it came together, we got in touch with Flavio Volpe, the President of the Automotive Parts and Manufacturer’s Association of Canada (APMA) and a key player in coordinating this unprecedented response.

Q: It isn’t always easy to track what manufacturers are actually producing – many companies aren’t wasting time telling people what they’re doing to help. Can you give me a quick rundown of the types of products Ontario’s automotive manufacturers are working on?

VOLPE: We put out our call to action on March 15, 2020, and the response was immediate. Initially the call was put out for facemasks and ventilators. For facemasks, companies like Woodbridge Group are now producing thousands of masks a day in Vaughan. Their designers and engineers got to work and developed a new product, with Health Canada approval, in an unprecedented timeline. Some of Ontario’s largest manufacturers, like Linamar, Magna and ABC Technologies dove straight into ventilator production. The auto sector is working on everything from the complete ventilator assembly, to the specific components like pressure sensors, valves and tubes. It didn’t stop there, Autoliv – a company that traditionally makes auto safety products like airbags – retooled its Markham facility to make gowns for hospitals. Mitchell Plastics, Axiom, ABC Technologies, Windsor Mold Group, Honda Canada, they all stepped up and said we’re going to make face shields. We’ve got injection molding companies like Dynaplas who are going to be pumping out thousands of test swabs as well.

The mobilization has been unprecedented.

Q: I think we stole some of your best lines for the introduction, but can you put that scale of this mobilization into some sort of perspective? What kind of volume are we talking about here?

VOLPE: It is worth repeating – this has been the largest peacetime mobilization of industrial capacity in Canada’s history. With ventilators, we’re talking in the tens of thousands. With face shields, test swabs, facemasks, it’s in the tens of millions.

These are companies that typically make thousands of parts components a day so they’re able to meet the unprecedented demand for medical equipment.

Q: It’s not easy to shift production from dashboard components to personal protective equipment (PPE) face shields in a matter of weeks, but we have that sort of thing happening. What kinds of challenges are manufacturers facing in this massive pivot?

VOLPE: It’s been a steep learning curve for sure. You have to remember the regulatory environment for a bumper is very different than what you need for a face mask or a test swab. You need different approvals – from Health Canada – and to ensure that your facilities are able to sterilize the product so it can be used for medical purposes. Not to mention that these companies are dealing with the effects of the pandemic themselves – so you need to be certain that a team of workers are staying safe and following social distancing guidelines while producing a new product. It’s a complicated operation.

Another key challenge has been sourcing the raw materials and components that the rest of the world – who are also scrambling to make PPE, vents, etc. – are also looking for. So a product like the N95 face mask needs a specific unwoven fabric to be made – most of the producers of this fabric are overseas, in countries that have implemented export controls to protect their domestic supply.

Q: Where do we go from here? Is there still untapped capacity to produce supplies?

VOLPE: It’s important to understand that even though the demand for these COVID-19 supplies is unprecedented, it is still a fraction of the auto sector’s production capacity. If needed, the production of masks, shields, gowns, swabs and even ventilators can be scaled. It’ll be up to the procurement direction at the federal and provincial level.

Q: The idea that following the COVID-19 crisis we could see a substantial reshoring of manufacturing capacity in North America has floated around for a few weeks. Do you think a significant realignment of automotive supply chains will be a consequence of this pandemic?

VOLPE: I think this has been a wakeup call for a lot of globally integrated industries – especially those that source a lot of their inputs from China. We’ll see global supply chain disruptions in risk calculations moving forward and companies actively looking for ways to mitigate this risk. COVID-19 has exposed many vulnerabilities that the industry will be paying close attention to.

Beyond COVID-19, the new NAFTA (USMCA) will enter into force on July 1st. This trade agreement will raise the regional value content required by OEMs – meaning that a lot of our members’ customers, the Fords and Toyotas of the world, are going to be looking to source more locally to be able to qualify for the new requirements.

Q: When we pitched this Q&A I said there’d be just five questions, but is there anything else you’d like to say before we end?

VOLPE: Let’s not take anything for granted. Next door to our office building is a long-term care centre. As of Sunday, they’ve had over 225 positive cases of COVID-19 and 38 deaths. There are sections of our communities, often the most neglected, that have been hit tremendously hard by this virus. Some of us have been lucky enough to move through the past few weeks without significant loss, but as a society we’re only as strong as our most vulnerable.

The frontline healthcare workers I’ve been speaking with are truly at war. There are real heroes at work here and we need to do everything we can to help them win this fight. If you aren’t asking what more can be done, then you aren’t doing enough.