Automakers adjust to ‘new normal’ as they prepare to reopen plants

A growing list of automakers hope to restart their assembly lines — some as early as this week — as manufacturers battle to prevent a record sales slump from steepening.

The 54 auto assembly lines —along with hundreds of parts plants — ground to a halt in mid-March as the extent of the coronavirus pandemic became increasingly apparent.

With new car sales drying up, that didn’t matter much for the past month. But with sales starting to rebound, according to a new report by J.D. Power, manufacturers want to be positioned to meet resurgent consumer demand.

Kia, Volkswagen and Mercedes are starting up Monday, with Honda getting people back into the factory by May 1. Fiat Chrysler and Ford are formally scheduled to start up on a rolling basis on May 4, and GM has also started advising workers they will be coming back next week. May 4 also should see Tesla, Toyota, Hyundai, BMW and Volvo start up. Subaru is set for May 11.

However, the process of reopening won’t be like flipping a switch. It will take some time to, among other things, get everyone used to the new plant layout and processes, automakers have pointed out.

The main challenge will be ensuring that employees can take their place on assembly lines without having to fear getting potentially deadly COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Hundreds already have, with several manufacturers, including Fiat Chrysler and Ford, reporting a number of fatalities.

“There is no going back to the normal for the foreseeable future. We have to adjust to the new normal,” said Chris Reynolds, Toyota’s chief administrative officer for North American manufacturing operations. The May 4 restart date is “an opening day, not the day we’re going begin making cars,” he noted.

The Japanese automaker, which operates a network of parts and assembly plants in the Midwest and South, offered some insight into the steps it is taking to protect workers when they begin to report back next week. Work stations have been reengineered to increase the distance between workers, said Sean Suggs, president of Toyota’s big assembly plant in Mississippi. Even cafeterias have been redesigned, and plastic sheets have been installed between sinks in factory restrooms.

Line workers, meanwhile, will be wearing personal protection equipment, or PPE, similar to what’s now being used in hospitals, including masks and even face shields. Before even entering the plant, they’ll be asked about their health and have their temperature taken.

Suggs said Toyota has been networking with other automakers to share best practices for protecting line workers. Volkswagen, which plans to reopen its Chattanooga assembly line on May 3, said it has put in place 90 different steps to protect employees. Detroit’s Big Three have announced similar measures to reduce the risk of the virus spreading.

“You have to assume that every person (in a plant) is infected,” said David Yanez, chief operating officer of PTI QCS, a quality control firm working with a number of automakers to address the challenges of building cars during a pandemic. “Our culture now has to be about safety first. If workers don’t feel safe it could disrupt the entire production chain.”