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

April 28, 2020, 12:16 PM UTC

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
clay.chandler@fortune.com

NEWS BY DESIGN

CoVent ventilator designed by Dyson Coronavirus
Dyson's CoVent ventilator prototype.
Dyson/Reuters

Breathe. Dyson has decided the ventilator it designed for the U.K. government is no longer needed. That's good news. Reportedly, the demand isn't there. Recent reports show doctors have seen positive results with non-invasive alternatives to ventilators, such as delivering oxygen through a nasal tube. Dyson says it is investigating whether the excess units could be exported to other countries in need of the breathing machines. 

Be prepared. Should governments prepare for pandemics the way they do for war? That would mean stockpiling medical equipment, ensuring supply lines are secure, and deploying billions in government funding for R&D on products that will hopefully never be used.

Don’t fraternize. The World Economic Forum looked at ten ways work and workplaces might be different post-pandemic. Introverts rejoice: the open office might finally be done for and, maybe, so will the office altogether.

Join the party. Facebook launched Messenger Rooms last week—the company’s answer to Zoom and Houseparty. The latecomer seeks to distinguish itself by imbuing the video chat platform with a sense of spontaneity. Users can create a “room” where others can drop in and out when they like.

Up your game. U.S. rapper Travis Scott teamed up with Fortnite to put on a virtual “tour” throughout the massive multiplayer game over the weekend, drawing over 12 million participants. The performance wasn’t really live but, impressively, the psychedelic visuals were all developed at home, as Epic Games developers shelter in place.

Flight of fancy. Aviointeriors—a design firm famous for creating a "standing seat" that could cram more passengers onto planes—is now pitching how to keep passengers apart, as airlines prepare for a post-pandemic world. But will sneeze guards be enough to save the budget airline industry?

EVENTS BY DESIGN

April: OpenIDEO and Fortune’s COVID-19 Business Pivot Challenge is seeking submissions through the end of the month. The last call for entrants is April 30.

June: The month-long London Festival of Architecture is running a stripped-back event online this year, with the core public program moved to (hopefully) later this year. The San Francisco Design Week, which starts June 16, has gone digital too.

Ongoing: Virtual Design Festival, a collaborative effort from Dezeen, Dutch Design Week and Design Indaba continues to exhibit work from a global roster of designers; the Serpentine Gallery has taken Cao Fei’s Blueprints exhibition online

QUOTED BY DESIGN

“As amazing as videoconferencing technology has become, students face financial, practical and psychological barriers as they try to learn remotely….Colleges and universities must be able to safely handle the possibility of infection on campus while maintaining the continuity of their core academic functions.”

Christina Paxson, president of Brown University, lays out the need for universities to reopen in the fall, knowing that the pandemic might still be raging. Remote learning, Paxon says, has limitations—especially for less privileged students—but campuses are hotbeds for infection. Test, trace, and separate is Paxson's answer.