o say that Michael “Mike” Mikula (METE ’91, M.S. ’93) has had a productive and stimulating career at Ford Motor Company, where he has worked for the past 26 years, almost goes without saying. One year after graduating with his master’s degree from Illinois Institute of Technology, Mikula began at Ford as a tooling and process engineer and in 1997, was placed into the company’s Manufacturing Leadership Program. Some 20 years later he was named to his current role as global chief engineer for advanced manufacturing, where he focuses on ways Ford can utilize hands-on technologies to counter challenges and retain industry leadership.
But even Mikula could not foresee the unprecedented situation his advanced manufacturing team and thousands of other Ford employees would be challenged to rise to address this past March.
As scores of people across the United States began to fall dangerously ill with novel coronavirus COVID-19, the 117-year-old global automaker turned its assembly lines over to the large-scale production of equipment used to support patients as well as health care providers. One of the first projects that members of Mikula’s team along with other Ford engineers and designers began developing was a special Ford version of a powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) put out by the 3M Company. To get more respirators in circulation as quickly as possible, the first iteration utilized off-the-shelf parts such as the fan used to cool seats in the Ford F-150 pickup truck.
“I learned a lot about the incredible capabilities of some of my team members as they rose to creatively overcome challenges in design, manufacturing, and performance improvements of the variety of initiatives,” says Mikula, who grew up outside of the Motor City. “Creating respiratory support devices from car parts requires imagination as well as outstanding command of engineering science.”
“Creating respiratory support devices from car parts requires imagination as well as outstanding command of engineering science.”
— Mike Mikula
Mikula’s team also helped to provide the rapid prototyping and 3D printing of components that were needed to gain U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval as well as to construct manufacturing aids to support the high volume of production at the various workstations in participating Ford plants throughout Michigan. Ford also developed a transparent full-face protective shield and collaborated with GE Healthcare and Airon to develop and produce a new supportive patient ventilator.
In April, Ford added reusable gowns—made from airbag materials—and face masks to its COVID-19 manufacturing list and worked with Thermo Fisher Scientific to produce virus collection kits for patient testing. The company also provided COVID-19 manufacturing support to its plants in Canada, Asia, and the United Kingdom.
Thinking about the turnout of company volunteers to work seven days a week at 15+-hour shifts for a global health crisis was not surprising to Mikula, who says that his appreciation for the Ford company, its automotive legacy, and people who make it all possible has deepened.
“We had volunteers waiting for the opportunity to come off the bench to contribute in whatever way we might need them. Employees deployed overnight to drive to support three key 3M production sites, where some people worked as line workers, some worked in continuous improvement roles as manufacturing engineers, and some worked in logistics helping 3M overcome supply-chain constraints as they accelerated to more than double their capacity over the course of a few weeks,” he says.
“People left their homes and families for six to eight weeks and never asked for any special recognition,” says Mikula. “I am so proud to be a Ford Motor Company employee.”