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As GM and Ford reopen plants, they will offer lessons for other manufacturers

With General Motors’ Lockport components plant already engaged in limited operations and production restarting Monday at the company’s Town of Tonawanda engine plant and at Ford’s stamping plant in Hamburg, a mainstay of the regional economy is about to start its engines.

Western New York was unable to begin a broader reopening last week as the number of hospitalizations for Covid-19 unexpectedly rose. However, automotive is considered an essential business and closures of the local plants was voluntary.

And smart.

The slow and steady process of returning workers to these plants will take place under strict health guidelines and stands – for better or worse – to offer a lesson in how manufacturing can proceed in a time of global pandemic.

GM recently announced that most of its North American plants would restart work on May 18. The company is ramping up production at its facilities in stages, beginning with one shift of workers before expanding to two or three shifts, as needed. GM’s Lockport components plant, meanwhile, reopened last week with limited staffing to support the company’s Customer Care and Aftersales network.

In Hamburg, Ford’s Route 5 plant produces stamped metal parts for a variety of the company’s vehicles. The company temporarily closed its plants in late March in response to concerns of the United Auto Workers union about safety amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Jim Farley, Ford’s chief operating officer, noted in a recent News story that figuring out how to safely open its plants required a number of partners, including state and federal governments, unions and what it called a “cross-section of our workforce.” It was a wise approach that built confidence in the ability to work safely.

Ford has already reopened facilities in China and begun a phased restart in Europe, while producing medical equipment in Michigan for more than six weeks. The company plans to use lessons from those experiences in restarting here, Farley said.

GM temporarily converted a components factory in Kokomo, Ind., to manufacture ventilators, in partnership with Ventec Life Systems. An engineer at GM’s Town of Tonawanda engine plant, Doug Harke, joined the ventilator team.

Along with the hospitals green-lighted to restart elective surgeries here, manufacturing’s slow and steady restart is another sign of a move toward normalcy. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s deliberate approach to maintaining essential services under strict guidelines and the phased approach to reopening the economy are designed to allow the state to reopen safely and cautiously, even as the pandemic continues.

General Motors and Ford represent the advance guard into what will be the new normal. Their return to work will be under scrutiny during what remains a risky time. Other manufacturers will have the advantage of learning from these auto manufacturing plants – what they do right and what might go wrong – as this crucial experiment begins.

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