FORT MILL, S.C.—Continental A.G. is ramping production back up around the world, and while some things have changed thanks to COVID-19, others remain the same in the tire making business.
Benny Harmse is vice president of manufacturing for Continental Tire the Americas and oversees operations in both North America and South America from Fort Mill.
While each of the company's manufacturing sites around the world need to adhere to local regulations in restarting operations, there are lessons learned that facilities can share with one another, he said.
"We're getting back to business," Harmse said in an interview with Rubber & Plastics News. "Of course, it looks a bit different than it did prior to the COVID incident. We have a global safety team, which set up protocols and guidelines. We did an assessment on each location that we have."
Social distancing is becoming common as people look to keep themselves safe both inside and outside of work. And so are masks.
That's certainly true at Continental. But the manufacturing floor can create some unique challenges in trying to keep people physically separate.
That's where the liberal use of plexiglass comes in. Just like at retail stores around the country, Continental has created physical barriers between workstations as needed to help keep its employees safe.
"We took advantage of when we shut all of the plants. We used time for some of the maintenance to put up plexiglass," Harmse said. "When people came back, we were ready for them. It wasn't a big deal, to be honest. It wasn't as difficult as we were worried about getting supplies."
Continental had no problems sourcing both the plexiglass needed at its facilities as well as enough masks for all their employees to use, Harmse said.
"All of our plants are running," he said. "What we did do is we've ramped them up a little bit slowly, not to bring all of the people on board immediately. We staggered shifts, staggered the number of people coming in."
This allowed Continental to train workers about new ways of protecting themselves while working.
Some jobs can be done from home. But making tires is not one of them. Employees who must be on the plant floor are being brought back in waves to make sure they can be trained to work under new conditions.
"I don't think it's going to make a huge difference on the plant floor," Harmse said about how people will be able to perform their jobs under the new conditions. "I think social distancing will be something that people naturally will do for a long time. It will take some time to get back to normalcy. People are talking about what the new normal is, and in the manufacturing world, I don't see too much of a change."
Certain functions and activities can be adapted to a new approach—virtual meetings and travel restrictions, for example. But, Harmse said, "we need to keep running the business. There will be some changes around that, but you've always got to find a balance. The majority of our people need to be on the shop floor producing. We have to make sure we keep the balance in how we treat everybody in the same manner."
Even as Continental reopens amid COVID-19, Harmse repeatedly stressed that the health and safety of the company's employees is paramount. With that in mind, employees have been respectful and disciplined when it comes to new work rules. "I think people generally feel the reality of the situation," Harmse said.
"It's not always easy. I think the team has done a really good job with communicating, staying in contact with our employees, telling them what's going on so when they came back they knew what to expect. We put them through training when they came back. I was very pleased with the preparation," he said.
Operations in North and South America have benefited from being part of the larger Continental organization. Officials in the region saw other company facilities around the world close first, but then also reopen first.
"We have facilities in Asia. We watched what happened in Asia and we saw that continue in our European region. Americas was the last to be hit," Harmse said. "We were the third region, so we could learn a little bit from them."
But even within regions, not all facilities are returning at the same pace, as they must deal with local conditions and situations.
As employees resume to tire making, Continental is seeing an increasing demand in the replacement market as economies around the world begin to expand. Business with original equipment manufacturers—the automotive companies—is a bit more unpredictable at this point, Harmse said.
"That portion of the business may be a little bit slower going forward. It all depends on their performance and how they go forward," he said. "It varies, again, from region to region and location to location."
Continental said most of its workers have been ready to return to their jobs.
"People want to come back to work. It's really positive. There's always a few people who are a little bit hesitant. But I think we've provided all the safety measures to make them feel comfortable," he said.
Along with the need to earn paychecks, employees also look forward to their return because of the social interaction jobs provide. "I think that's an important part of the story," Harmse said.