Ford Motor Company (F 0.08%) said that it is working with 3M (MMM -0.28%) and General Electric's (GE 1.12%) healthcare unit, as well as the United Auto Workers labor union (UAW), to ramp up production of urgently needed hospital and safety equipment. 

Personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and respirators are in short supply as hospitals and first responders have mobilized to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The pandemic has also left healthcare authorities worried about a shortage of hospital ventilators, which are necessary for the many COVID-19 sufferers who have difficulty breathing. 

Here's what we know.

Workers on a well-lit factory floor are shown hand-assembling face shields.

Ford is testing a new face shield for healthcare workers. It is planning to make 100,000 of the shields per week, with production ramping up within days. Image source: Ford Motor Company.

What Ford, 3M, and GE said

In a press conference on Tuesday morning, Ford explained that it has been working on several different efforts since last week:

  • Ford and 3M are collaborating to manufacture powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs) at scale. These are battery-operated protective devices that provide filtered air for healthcare workers and first responders who may be exposed to the virus for several hours at a time. Engineers from 3M and Ford are working quickly to adapt an existing 3M design to incorporate parts (such as blower motors and switches) that Ford has on hand.
  • Ford manufacturing engineers are also working with 3M to help increase production of other PPE equipment, including N95 masks.
  • GE Healthcare is working with Ford to engineer and get regulatory approval for a simplified version of an existing GE ventilator design that can be put into mass production quickly. The simplified ventilator will be built at GE factories, and may also be built at a Ford manufacturing site as well. 
  • Ford is preparing to test a new transparent full-face shield for medical workers and first responders. Ford's U.S. design team, together with UAW-represented workers who have volunteered to work while Ford's factories are closed, have already produced 1,000 of these shields for testing at Detroit-area hospitals. Ford expects to manufacture about 75,000 shields this week, and over 100,000 per week thereafter, at a subsidiary's factory in Plymouth, Michigan. 
  • Ford is also working on a separate effort, not involving GE, to produce ventilators in the U.K. in coordination with the British government. 
  • Ford is bringing 165,000 unused N95 respirators back to the U.S. from China, where they were sent earlier this year, and will make those available to hospitals while it works to acquire more. 
Jacek, wearing a "Ford Engine Prototype" t-shirt and the face shield, is standing on a factory floor.

Dave Jacek, a Ford 3D-printing technician, is shown wearing a prototype face shield developed for healthcare workers. Image source: Ford Motor Company.

What it means for Ford investors

In a time of such urgent need, it's a little awkward to step back and look at the cold business implications of moves like this. Clearly many at Ford, 3M, GE, and the suppliers supporting these efforts are doing this because it's the right thing to do, period.

But as investors, I think we can take a moment to note that all of these efforts are very much on-brand for Ford, which prides itself on its history as part of the "Arsenal of Democracy" during two world wars as well as prior epidemics.

The company released new ads last week that recall that history and strike a somber tone appropriate to this moment.

The efforts announced today are right in keeping with those messages. Ford executives (and their counterparts at 3M and GE) know that extraordinary efforts in moments like these will be repaid in goodwill from customers later on. 

Long story short: In addition to being absolutely the right things to do at this moment in history, these efforts are good investments for Ford's future. When the virus fades and the economy recovers, people will remember that these companies hastened to help when it was needed.

That's good business, and we should remember that companies that step up at moments like this often turn out to be good investments over the long term.