Most of the vast buildings at General Motors Technical Center in Warren sit largely empty, except for the Design Center.

There, seven stalwart automotive trim specialists toil away at sewing machines daily, even weekends, for at least 10 hours a day.

They’re not making car seats or interiors for show cars, as they usually would. They’re making medical gowns for medical professionals to wear for protection from the highly contagious coronavirus.

It’s a motley crew of tailors who’ve assembled to stitch about 120 to 140 medical gowns a day. Some learned their craft by upholstering furniture, others by making airplane seats. One altered clothes as a kid in his dad’s dry cleaning business.

But stitching medical gowns is proving most rewarding.

“The feedback from the hospital is unbelievable,” said Steve Hart, director of GM’s design fabrication. “We got one text from a nurse that said, ‘I guarantee, you saved my life twice tonight.’ ”

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A work of art

Since mid-to-late March, the group has made and delivered some 800 medical gowns to Henry Ford Heath System at 1 Ford Place in Detroit, Hart said. Normally, the Design Center’s trim shop is occupied by 13 trim specialists who design car seats and vehicle interiors.

GM has also been making face shields. GM’s Additive Manufacturing and Design Fabrication Operations started making face shields March 27 using 3D printing at five GM locations — three at the Global Technical Center in Warren, one at the Milford Proving Ground in Milford and one at the North Hollywood Advanced Design Center in North Hollywood, California. GM also has been making aerosol boxes at the Tech Center — the transparent containers that protect medical personnel as they intubate patients.

The medical gown idea was born around March 13, the day before GM sent most salaried workers home to work as the virus proliferated across the country.

Hart’s colleague told him that day of how his wife was a physician at Henry Ford Health System. She was afraid they would run short of the ever-important protective gowns. Hart told him to have a hospital representative call him, figuring maybe GM could help. 

“The trim shop is a huge sewing shop,” Hart said. “They make everything from seats to headliners from scratch, for concept vehicles and show cars and even designs for future product.”

The shop is full of all kinds of materials, too, along with some of the most creative people Hart knows. 

“These are skilled craftspeople and their skills have proven useful beyond automotive,” Hart said. “They have a varied background. Some come from a family of upholstery makers. One’s dad ran the corner upholstery store. Some came from the textile industry. It’s industrial sewing, but it’s also a work of art. It’s unbelievable what they come up with.”

The team would have to be creative fast because a Henry Ford rep called Hart the next day telling him, “I need these gowns and I am crowd sourcing this because we need so many,” Hart said.

‘In my blood’

Hart’s first call was to Dan Lombardi to create some gown samples for the hospital to review and approve. 

Lombardi has worked for GM since 1990. He is GM’s senior trim technician leader, but beyond that, he’s a hell of a tailor, Hart said. He’s had his foot on a sewing machine peddle long before he stepped on a car’s throttle.

“My father was a tailor by trade. He had me behind a sewing machine by the time I was 12 years old,” Lombardi said. “It’s in my blood.”

The elder Lombardi immigrated to Detroit in the early 1940s from Sora, Italy, a town midway between Rome and Naples. He opened a dry cleaning and tailor shop near Detroit called Lombardi Cleaners where he taught his son about alterations, clothing patterns and later how to sew seats for cars and boats. The store closed in the 1970s, but the lessons proved invaluable.

“My pattern background helped me to develop a medical gown and make it something they could use,” Lombardi said. “I was able to go on the computer to design the pattern and then operate the machine to make that pattern, then go upstairs to sew it into a gown.”

After a few tweaks to the gown’s straps that tie it in place, Henry Ford’s team approved the pattern, Hart said.

Just like Christmas

Henry Ford has been supplying the material to GM to make the gowns. They are all sized extra large. The material used is called Tyvek. It’s a brand that makes white paper-like material that is durable and fluid resistant. But after each use, the gown has be tossed out, which is why the demand for them continues to rise.

As soon as the hospital approved Lombardi’s design, six other trim shop employees raised their hands to get to work making them on March 19.

The sewing machines were spaced far apart for social distancing so that the paid volunteers do not get sick. Hart said they wear face masks and at 6 a.m. each day they all must have their temperatures taken.

They have a routine too. They drop off the gowns to Henry Ford in Detroit early in the morning, then they sew more gowns all day, well into the evening, Hart said.

“The hours that everyone on my team have put in, far exceeds what they’d normally do,” said Hart. “They start at six in the morning. We have calls at 7 o’clock at night to make sure we have everything right. We’ll make as many as we can make.”

Hart said the hospital staff has told him “no one’s doing it faster” than GM’s crew, so the team will keep at it as long as there is a need and they can find the material. The experience has been eye-opening, Hart said.

“When we brought these into the hospital and they told us it was like Christmas,” Hart said. “It’s very rewarding and it’s in real time. A lot of things we work on in a normal course of business doesn’t come out until some time later. Whereas the gowns we make Tuesday, go into service on Wednesday.”

Lombardi said he never hesitated when he was asked to help because it’s the right thing to do. 

Hart sees it as a new calling, “I am not in the car business anymore — temporarily — we’re all in the medical field.”

Contact Jamie L. LaReau at 313-222-2149 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @jlareauan. Read more on General Motors and sign up for our autos newsletter.

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