COVID-19: A 60 Minutes homage to the spirit of unity

Ford workers manufacture medical supplies. Both Ford and GM are producing ventilators while practicing social distancing. (CBS)

On Sunday night, CBS' 60 Minutes pulled off another masterful report, “How Ford and GM joined the fight against coronavirus,” that includes interviews with the automaker CEOs but also ordinary unsung heroes: engineers, mechanics, forklift operators and assembly line workers.

The two carmakers are now producing ventilators and personal protective gear in big numbers three weeks after the story first hit in early April.  FierceElectronics has covered the story along with many other publications.  

GM and Ventec Life Systems are working on ventilators together in GM’s Kokomo, Indiana plant, while Ford is partnering with Airon.    Separately, FE learned of Bloom Energy engineers pivoting from making fuel cell generators to refurbishing ventilators as well.

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RELATED: COVID-19: Bloom energy tiger team pivots to rescue ventilators

With a few weeks under their belts, the workers at GM and Ford share in the report new insights on how workers function with a degree of safety in the era of COVID-19. They get temperature screenings when coming to work each day. They also work apart with social distancing by using Samsung watches that use Bluetooth to buzz them when they get closer than 6.5 feet.

Some of the best details of the CBS report depict the everyday of piecing together a machine with 400 parts, in this case a ventilator.  Tracy Streeter, a forklift operator at GM was laid off because of the virus but came back to insert tiny screws into a ventilator part.  His wife is a nurse.

“Even though that screw is so small, it’s an important part,” Streeter tells CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell. “I look at it in the scheme of things. I’m just probably as insignificant as that small little screw. But I play a part in what’s happening in the bigger scale.”

Phil Kienle, GM’s vice president of North American manufacturing, talks about the quick turnaround in supplying all the ventilators parts needed, something achieved over a weekend by several engineers. “When we were on the flight to Seattle, I asked everybody to have a mindset of what if your parents, your wife, one of your children had this COVID disease, and absolutely needed one of these ventilators? How far would go to get this thing into production? How fast would you move?

In another interview, Ford employee Joanne Ritchie talks about switching from making transmission valves in a clean room to making face masks.  Her daughter is a critical care nurse at a hospital near Detroit.  

“The first thing that came to my mind, I thought, ‘I’m gonna protect her. If I can, I’m gonna protect her. I’m gonna give her what she needs to do her job,’” Ritchie says.

This latest 60 Minutes masterpiece makes it clear that people and organizations will help in a crisis if given the opportunity.  GM, Ford, Bloom Energy and many other companies have shown vision and skill, but also care, kindness and a tremendous sense of unity in furtherance of a common cause. The report doesn’t dwell on regulatory difficulties and other business headaches needed to pull off such manufacturing feats, but that doesn’t seem relevant when set against the context of cooperation.

 An investigative team of more than eight producers, editors and O’Donnell (not to mention camera and sound teams) pulled off a moving account, but also one that offers insight and hope to people scared or intimidated about coming back to work.

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