As one of the world’s largest automakers, the Volkswagen Group has a special expertise in getting essential parts to the right place at the right time. Over the past three months, that expertise in shipping and logistics has taken on a new mission: Finding, transporting and in some cases setting up production for personal protective equipment needed to fight the COVID-19 outbreak worldwide.
In the United States, Volkswagen worked with a consortium of other manufacturers and suppliers, including Dow and Whirlpool, to help launch much-needed production of respirator hoods. In Mexico, Volkswagen worked with fabrics and seating supplier Faurecia to launch production of face masks and gowns for front-line medical workers. And in Germany, Volkswagen experts found a way in a matter of days to ship an estimated $40 million worth of vital protective equipment and supplies – including respiratory masks and disinfectants – from China to help ease equipment shortages in Europe.
“Working globally at speed is one of the key strengths that makes the Volkswagen Group a successful automaker,” said Michael Lovati, senior vice president of purchasing and chief procurement officer for the North American Region at Volkswagen Group of America. “We know how to get suppliers and buyers together to get products where they need to be, and we’ve been thankful for the opportunity to help our communities worldwide fight this disease.”
At Volkswagen Chattanooga, a team of supply and logistics experts have been working for the past few months to broker connections with materials and supply-chain partners to find critical components and fabric. One of the first projects: helping seat supplier Faurecia set up a production line for personal protective equipment at its factory in Puebla, Mexico. With Volkswagen’s help, plus an initial order of 70,000 masks and 5,000 gowns, Faurecia was able to pivot its processes, and can now produce upwards of 1,000,000 masks and 50,000 gowns per week.
The Volkswagen task force also assisted Dow and Whirlpool to help produce a powered, air-purifying respirator, or PAPR. With regular N95 protective masks being used rapidly, the PAPR replaces those masks and visors, using a replaceable polyethylene hood that’s flexible, comfortable, and can quickly be replaced between patients. Volkswagen, Dow and parts supplier Magna have also teamed up to launch production of medical gowns.
When the outbreak emerged in Germany in March, Volkswagen had already been shipping personal protective equipment to China to support workers facing the outbreak there. Volkswagen arranged for a donation of masks and medical clothing to German hospitals and medical centers – but needed to move them from China first.
Due to the critical nature of the request and the growing amount of COVID-19 cases, the Volkswagen teams in China and Germany knew they needed to act quickly.
“Normally such a transport takes at least a week. This time we had to make it in half that time,” said Anna Levina, a Volkswagen logistics expert in Germany. “We knew that it would be a very tight race.”
Working alongside Volkswagen Group China, Levina’s team was able to overcome multiple obstacles to make this vision a reality, including obtaining all the necessary transportation paperwork and securing a shipping agent in a matter of 72 hours.
“We handled the transport with good teamwork. If anyone hadn’t pulled along, we would have failed,” explains Jian Zhou, Head of Logistics at Volkswagen Group China. “It was like a race with different starting points. We had to coordinate with each other constantly along the way.”
With the entire world scrambling for the same tools, supplier relations and buyers who can negotiate with them have become essential. Volkswagen buyer Jens-Michael Potthast has been working with colleagues in Beijing to source PPE for global markets.
“It’s an absolute sellers’ market. You have to be resourceful and incredibly fast,” says Potthast. “Without good contacts on site, we would achieve little. That’s why it’s extremely important that the procurers in Germany and China have a short line of communication to one another.”
< In addition, the Volkswagen Group has started to produce face shield holders by 3D printing at its plants across Europe. This is part of a joint transnational initiative with Airbus and the 3D printing network of about 250 companies known as Mobility Goes Additive and was launched after requests from authorities in Spain for medical protective gear. Production is in progress not only at the large 3D printing centers in Wolfsburg and Ingolstadt, but also at other plants of Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, MAN Truck & Bus, Porsche, Volkswagen Passenger Cars, Volkswagen Group Components and Volkswagen Motorsport. The Group currently uses more than 50 3D printers at its plants, and Volkswagen has added additional printers for this project. In America, the Volkswagen e-Labs at schools in the Chattanooga area pressed their 3D printers into service for face shield production. 3D-printed headbands were delivered to the Public Education Foundation in Chattanooga, which then added the plastic face shields and distributed the final product to local medical centers.
3D printing has shown its usefulness in other ways as well. In collaboration with the Technical University in Prague, ŠKODA has developed a 3D printing process to produce reusable FFP3 respirators. The Czech Ministry of Health is now distributing these to doctors, hospitals, and nursing staff. And in Italy, Lamborghini converted space in its sports car production plant in Sant’Agata Bolognese to produce surgical masks and protective plexiglass shields for Italian front-line workers.
“It’s one thing to organize parts for cars. It’s what we do. We knew that this time it was a matter of human lives,” says Levina. “It’s about keeping doctors healthy. Everybody’s put their backs into it.”