Different look for factory floors once business resumes

Coronavirus

KENTWOOD, Mich. (WOOD) — As the debate continues about the health risks and economic benefits of getting Michigan to work, the owner of a West Michigan company that has remained open says industry can go forward if safeguards are enforced.

Kentwood-based Autocam Medical, which makes precision-machined surgical drill bits, drivers, screws, plates, cutting tools and other complex medical device components, is already following safety rules.

“We have the advantage of operating in China,” owner John Kennedy said, explaining that meant Autocam had to adopt stringent guidelines the Chinese government instituted to prevent another outbreak.

Kennedy has brought those best practices to his U.S. plants, creating what he believes is a back-to-work path other manufacturers could follow.

“We just took those same practices and said, ‘OK, they seem to be working in China… we haven’t had any infection or anything else, so let’s adopt them here,'” Kennedy said. “I think coming into our plant is a lot safer than what I’ve seen when I go to the grocery store.”

Each Autocam employee’s temperature is checked before every shift. Those who are not feeling well, even if it’s just a cold, are told to stay home at full pay. Everyone who does work wears a mask.

Kennedy believes social distancing is making the biggest difference. A single chair is located at every break room table to prevent employee congregation. The same distancing procedures extend to the production floor.

The company has about 500 employees its three US facilities. So far, only one — at a plant in Plymouth, Massachusetts, has contracted COVID-19. That happened in early April and the employees is recovering.

“He wasn’t back in the plant once he had symptoms, so he wasn’t able to spread it to anyone else,” Kennedy said.

It all comes down to science, he said. He hopes Gov. Gretchen Whitmer considers the types of measures he’s using as she decides when to relax her strict social distancing regulations, including the extended stay-at-home order that shut down many businesses.

“I think we have data that shows that it’s better if we can get people back to work in a very, very safe way,” Kennedy said.

He also has some advice for other businesses:

“Don’t jump into this too quickly and think there’s any of this that you can just blow off, because we’re going to have a problem if we do that,” Kennedy said.

One of the manufacturing industries worth watching moving forward is the one that put Michigan on the map: the auto industry.

“The challenge now, versus 2008, 2009, it’s been immediate. We took the punch in full force, immediately,” Mike Wall, an auto analyst with HIS, said.

But he said not to expect the restart to be immediate. A slow ramp up will be dictated by what the plant floor will look like once restrictions are eased.

“If you think about the classic pictures of the old Henry Ford moving assembly line, what do you got? You got workers shoulder to shoulder,” Wall said.

Like Autocam, Wall said many manufacturers with plants in China, where production has started to ramp up again, are bringing lessons learned there home.

The two keywords to a restart, he said, are slow and steady.
 
“Enforcing that social distancing; the PPE, having the gloves, the masks; and making sure your plant floor is optimized for that, that’s going take precedence over everything. And then that has the knock-on effects to plant efficiency,” Wall said. “So it’s going be a new normal for these suppliers and these automakers going forward for at least the foreseeable future.”

Kennedy is proof of that. He said the policies and procedures Autocam has followed do come at a price. Sick time and distancing procedures have slowed production.

“But we’re not willing to put the safety of our employees over that schedule,” Kennedy said.

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