GM Canada joins fight against COVID-19 with mask production in Oshawa
The plan is to manufacture approximately 1 million masks per month for the federal government. GM Canada's David Paterson describes how this initiative got started
OSHAWA, Ont. — General Motors of Canada is preparing portions of its iconic Oshawa plant to produce face masks for healthcare professionals and other Canadians.
The facility had been producing cars in the city east of Toronto for over a century until its closure was announced in 2018 and the plant was repurposed as an auto parts manufacturer with a smaller workforce. Now, GM Oshawa is on the front lines of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
The automaker plans to manufacture approximately 1 million masks per month for the federal government.
David Paterson, vice-president of Corporate and Environmental Affairs at GM Canada, said the initiative is modeled after a project undertaken at a GM plant in Warren, Michigan, in mid-March.
“They went very quickly and had their first face mask production in Warren around the end of March,” said Paterson. “Being in the same company, we watched that closely and started to think about what we could do in Canada.”
Paterson explained that in Canada, around the end of March, he and his team had initiated a program to collect PPE donations for frontline workers from GM’s suppliers and dealers, a program still in action, but the automaker was looking at what else it could do.
“The prime minister made a call to action in March, which caught my attention. That was really the signal that we needed to put together a proposal more specifically in Canada to meet their needs,” Paterson said.
He continued, “We had the idea of looking at the Oshawa plant to replicate the face mask production that we had from Warren, and we put our submission in for being able to do that to Health Canada and to other parts of the federal government around the beginning of April.”
Paterson said the process isn’t a typical manufacturing situation for GM. “It’s moving from a company like ours that has incredible expertise and supply chain capability in automotive, shifting into a health care product.”
He continued, “The regulations around a health care product are very different than around an automotive product.”
The executive said a special licence to manufacture health care products was obtained “about a week ago” from Health Canada. “That process was quick and well-managed.”
However, obtaining a licence was just one part of the regulatory process. “We need to make sure these masks are properly labelled for Health Canada purposes and approved for the manufacturing that we’re doing,” Paterson said, adding that GM will soon be producing sample masks for review by the federal government.
He said there is additional work and review that needs to be done with the government and GM’s union partner Unifor before full production can begin.
On the production side, GM has already procured the necessary equipment to make the masks, which is scheduled to arrive in Oshawa shortly, according to Paterson. Also, “We’re getting ready to move up production, get the cleanroom set up, and to get people trained.”
He said one of the reasons they’ve been able to move quickly with this project is because there are still portions of the Oshawa plant, not used for the new parts assembly business, which have been requisitioned for the new project. “We don’t require too much changing, we can just go into space and move quickly.”
“We’re still working with the government and with Health Canada to complete the purchase order. We’re doing that in parallel with the work that we’re doing getting things set up,” Paterson said, noting GM should have news soon about the completion of the contract.
He explained that the automaker decided to sell exclusively to the federal government because Health Canada can grant medical certification at the national level. “Given the volume of face masks, we wanted to make them work for front line workers anywhere in Canada…Health Canada will decide where to distribute the masks where they’re needed most.”
Paterson said the masks are being made at cost. “We’re providing our expertise, our space, and the government will cover the cost of the materials and the machinery, and pay for our workers.”
As for who will make these masks, Paterson expects some of the plant’s former workers from the vehicle manufacturing days will be brought back to be a part of this new venture.
The plan is to start with about 50 workers supporting two shifts of production, six days a week. “We could always expand, but that’s really up to the government. They’re the ones that need to tell us how many they need,” said Paterson.
GM has been involved in other efforts to help fight COVID-19, including making ventilators in Kokomo, Indiana, with a company called Ventec Life Systems, and helping out in Oshawa with design work for face shields, a joint initiative by Ontario Tech University and Ontario Power Generation.
However, Paterson said there was no question when he talked to the government that face masks were going to be the thing in highest and longest demand.
“We’re going to need masks to ride on the subway, to go shopping, to go in a taxi, and we’re certainly going to need them to start our workplaces, including our manufacturing workplaces. We’ll be one of the larger domestic producers I would think, producing 1 million a month, it’s going to be a lot, but the need is going to be much higher.”
Paterson continued, “There’s a new normal. Face masks are going to be part of that normal and that will be with us for a long time, until we have a vaccine. We do not have an intention to be in the medical device manufacturing business for the long term. We would love to be back into the normal production of auto parts in Oshawa and to expand that business, and we plan to do that, but all of this will help.”
While the executive is looking to get back to business as usual, he has been thoroughly impressed with how the organization has responded to this new challenge. “Our people have done this so quickly. This is the proudest moment that I’ve had in over a decade at GM.”