Ford’s swift pivot to PPE showcases the automaker’s competitive edge in design

Last week in this space I wrote about how companies like Apple, Nike, and architecture firm Foster + Partners are designing face shields that can be used to protect doctors, nurses and first responders against the coronavirus.

A few readers wrote to ask why I didn’t mention Ford Motor, whose pivot to producing face shields and ventilators Fortune’s Maria Aspan expertly chronicled in our latest magazine issue.

I should have. In under a week, a freshly-assembled task force designed, produced and delivered an innovative face shield made of less than a dozen parts—many of which are sourced from materials Ford already has in abundance.

The speed of Ford’s business pivot from manufacturing autos to face shields would be remarkable even by the standards of Silicon Valley startups—and offers a case study in how design thinking can help old-line industrial giants react nimbly to unexpected challenges.

Most of Ford is still shut down; the company hasn’t announced a time frame for resuming auto production. Yet a group of about 700 workers using little automation and keeping six feet apart is turning out shields at a rate of 1.5 million per week at Troy Design and Manufacturing, a Ford subsidiary in Plymouth, Michigan.

The design for the shield is refined and made of simple parts: a transparent plastic sheet widely available from Ford suppliers in giant rolls, a strip of foam with some sticky tape on the back, and an elastic band that can be stapled to either corner of the shield. Ford says the effort, code-named Project Apollo, will produce its 10 millionth shield this week.

The automaker has donated the face shields to hospitals, medical facilities, local police and fire departments in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and Guam. It has supplied shields to the federal and state governments, as well as the military, for the cost of materials and shipping.

The project has required collaboration at all levels of the company, including from the United Auto Workers union whose members, working as paid hourly volunteers, make up about half the force producing shields at the Plymouth plant. But the initiative was set in motion by a small cadre of designers at D-Ford, the carmaker’s human-centered design shop.

Using the methods of designers to think about business in a new way has been a signature initiative of Ford CEO Jim Hackett, who has led the company since 2017. In a recent profile in The Atlantic, former Fortune editor Jerry Useem explained what makes Hackett’s management ethos so different:

“At present, the question hovering over the car industry is basically whether high-tech entrants such as Tesla and Google can learn crankshafts and drivetrains faster than Ford, GM, and other carmakers can learn software and algorithms.

“But Hackett reflects Ford’s bet that the winner won’t be the best chassis maker or software maker, but the company that nails the interaction between man and machine.” 

That bet is still open. After production lines lurch back into motion, Ford must navigate a weakened, unpredictable economy sure to put Hackett’s design-led approach to the test. But the company’s swift pivot to making face shields suggests that, at a time of maximal uncertainty, Ford’s focus on user experience may have improved its odds.

Clay Chandler
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