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Thursday, 06 May 2021 21:28

Everything’s Changed: The Pandemic’s Impact Will Be Felt Long After We Stop Wearing Masks

Written by Paul A. Eisenstein, The Detroit Bureau
Weld curtains hang across the door line at FCA’s Sterling Heights (Michigan) Assembly Plant to protect employees from the spread and transmission of COVID-19. Weld curtains hang across the door line at FCA’s Sterling Heights (Michigan) Assembly Plant to protect employees from the spread and transmission of COVID-19.

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Visit any North American auto assembly plant and you’ll quickly notice how much things have changed since factories reopened after a two-month shutdown during spring 2020.

There are the ever-present masks, of course, and the way things have been reorganized, in break rooms as well as on the line, to minimize the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus.

 

It’s likely a matter of time until workers can remove their masks. But many of the other changes are likely to be permanent. Indeed, from manufacturing to marketing and retailing, there have been a number of changes brought by the pandemic that are likely to be long term and, perhaps, permanent. And they will impact automotive buyers as well as manufacturers.

 

“The pandemic has just changed the game,” said David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research. “Just about every automaker,” he said, will be changing business practices “to hedge against unexpected situations, whether an earthquake or a pandemic.”

 

The pandemic has played out in plenty of unexpected ways. That includes the ongoing shortage of semiconductors forcing almost every manufacturer to slow---and in some cases temporarily halt---production.

 

With millions of Americans in lockdown and even more working from home, chip vendors face unprecedented demand from manufacturers of web cameras, videogame consoles and cellphones, leaving automakers high and dry. Experts warn the situation could continue through the end of this year.

 

It’s highlighted the vulnerabilities of an automotive manufacturing system that has, during the past 30 years, evolved into a just-in-time process mandating minimum inventories. In many cases, factories receive parts just minutes before they’re needed on the line. When it all works it can hold down costs and give automakers more control over production schedules---while also improving quality.

 

When it fails, well, automakers...


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