A glance into the US: About one-way systems and how Corona can boost the team spirit

Guido Paffhausen, plant manager of the BENTELER Automotive site in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on how the USA is dealing with the Corona pandemic, one-way systems in the plant and the effects of the pandemic on the automotive industry.

As plant manager you are very close to what's happening, even during the temporary plant closure. Was there a time when the lights were turned off and the doors locked?

It's not quite that dramatic. At the end of the shift you shut everything down and then you have the task of looking after the equipment that needs maintenance over the next few weeks. These processes are not new to us - we also do this during our usual summer shutdown. This is of course planned a little longer in advance.


Being in the USA, where the pandemic struck a little later, you have been able to observe how other countries and plants are dealing with it. So did you already know what to expect?

Yes, that was a great advantage. Here in the USA we were able to observe what worked in other countries and took over this knowledge. For example, we also switched to home office - which is very, very unusual for office workers at a plant. But it turned out that an amazing amount can be done from home. When it's all over, we will evaluate what has proven to be successful.


How satisfied are you with the measures taken by the American government with regards to the coronavirus?

In Michigan, the regional government is listening to medical experts and is implementing their recommendations well and consistently. Our COVID-19 measures are very similar to China and Europe.


When facts do not seem certain, feelings often rule. How would you assess the mood in the automotive cluster around Detroit, Michigan?

Some people think that all the regional government's regulations to combat the pandemic are exaggerated, while others do not dare to go out in the streets even under the strictest protective measures. The regional authorities have recently extended the stay-at-home order. We are prepared to restart production quickly as soon as the regional restrictions are released. And we have taken comprehensive measures to ensure the safety of our employees - from fever thermometers, mouth-nose-protection masks and disinfectants up to the footpaths in the plant, which we have converted to a one-way system to avoid any oncoming traffic. And these are by no means all measures.


What is your roadmap for the next weeks?

Here in Michigan we are now able to produce on a small scale again and will gradually increase capacity. In other US states they have already resumed production earlier. The three major car manufacturers in the US are restarting production this week. It's not an easy situation for us because we have customers outside of Michigan and therefore completely different timelines. Good but flexible planning is therefore essential for us.


In Mexico, everything is still on hold. According to the current status, this situation will continue until the end of May. How much does that affect your planning?

Our plant is not directly affected by this, but indirectly, it is: because some of our customers are dependent on deliveries from Mexico. This is also reflected in our planning. As long as we have a lockdown in Mexico, production in the USA will not yet be able to reach full capacity. This is an aspect that we take into account when planning our ramp-up.


Will the pandemic change the automotive industry over the long term?

The coronavirus will cause a major disruption to the automotive industry - but also to other industries - in the coming years. Local production and back-up strategies in the field of logistics will become even more important for everyone. This is an opportunity for BENTELER - we are already relying on our local-for-local approach. This means that we source our raw materials, goods and services mainly from the region where we manufacture. In addition, our international size means that we can often be our own back-up - by supplying ourselves from other regions or countries.


This sounds like an opportunity in challenging times.  

Yes. The Corona pandemic, despite all its challenges, has brought us also some positive developments. We had a huge boost in digitization. Thanks to working from home office, we now store even more paperless data in the system - and are faster than before. There have also been some changes in our interpersonal relationships. There is much more understanding among employees of how challenging entrepreneurship can be; we all pull together. This team spirit inspires us all.


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