The expanding response to the coronavirus outbreak is moving from rapid prototyping to higher-volume injection molding, which is leading to an increased role for mold makers.
Toolmakers in North America have responded with manufacturing turnarounds that have led them to making complete tools in a matter of days, rather than months.
"We were four weeks from the first phone call to tooling to making handles," said Michael Mualem, president of Proper Group International, a Warren, Mich.-based mold maker and molder.
The company typically focuses on mold making and molding for the auto industry, but when customer General Motors Co. called on the company for a quick pivot to supply its project to make ventilators at its Kokomo, Ind., plant, it was quick to sign on.
The three tools for the project were complex, requiring overmolding and texturized surfaces to ensure the ventilators can be handled by medical personnel with gloved hands, Mualem said. GM still required Proper to meet strict performance goals. That meant a big shift in the typical production flow from an industry where tools typically take months to produce.
"There were no corners cut from GM on the deliverables, but no one is waiting for signoff from somewhere else [in a remote office]," he said. "Everything is streamlined; everyone is on board."
Proper supplied tooling for outside covers and handles for the GM project. It is also making and supplying face shields to fill local needs.
Mualem's daughter, Sara Gifford, is an intensive care nurse in the St. Joseph hospital system in metro Detroit and said some of the homemade shields couldn't stand up to the medical staff's needs or were uncomfortable to wear for extended periods.
"She said, 'Dad, you make things. Can't you make something for me?'" Mualem said.
The company has been using Gifford to provide feedback for its shields.
With the GM work, shields and other essential tooling projects, Proper has been able to keep its plant in Warren open along with a lighting plant in Pulaski, Tenn. A site in South Carolina supplying BMW AG has been shut down due to BMW's work stoppage.
To keep operations safe, all manufacturing sites were fogged with a disinfectant. Office employees are working at home. Supervisors and engineers have been spread throughout Proper's buildings to keep them separate.