Manufacturers answer the call

Small and large West Michigan makers spring into action to produce critical medical supplies during the pandemic.
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Dozens of Steelcase employees have shifted to making personal protective equipment, including face masks, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy Steelcase

West Michigan manufacturers are playing a firsthand role in an emergency production effort reminiscent of the mass mobilization that took place during World War II.

Even before the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) announced grants that would help businesses pivot to address the shortage of health care supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic, dozens of manufacturers in the region had already stepped up to the plate.

Over a dozen of these West Michigan companies — many of which were not previously suppliers for medical markets — have been in touch with the Business Journal in the past two weeks to share the ways in which they are reconfiguring their teams and shop floors to develop and produce solutions for health care professionals and others during this crisis.

A partial list of area businesses that have joined the fight against COVID-19 is as follows:

  • Laird Plastics in Kentwood is working with the State Emergency Operation Center (a joint operations center of Homeland Security and the Michigan State Police) to provide 100,000 protective face shields.
  • 2Gen Manufacturing, an injection molding company that opened last fall in Grand Rapids, is now producing eye protection frames and sample first parts on a mold to make a face mask.
  • Atlanta-based G95 is now making the Bioshield mask at the Ladder 34 facility where it does production in Cascade Township.
  • The ReChaco sandal repair factory in Rockford is producing masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) on its sewing machines.
  • Stryker in Kalamazoo just rolled out a low-cost emergency response bed that is designed to accommodate the unique needs of COVID-19 patients.
  • Altus in Walker is making mobile ventilator and telemedicine carts.
  • Cascade Township-based Clean Rooms International reconfigured stock HEPA filters to create a new product that allows hospitals to convert standard patient rooms to isolation rooms, minimizing airborne contagions from entering hallways and corridors to protect clinicians and other patients.
  • Nuvar in Holland is manufacturing medical masks, producing more than 3,000 in the first week.
  • JR Automation in Holland worked with General Motors to build a mask assembly line in metro Detroit in just six days.
  • The logistics team at Inontime in Zeeland delivered sneeze guards to all 248 Meijer stores in the U.S.
  • Primera Plastics in Zeeland is making disposable face shields.
  • Holland startup SolisMatica is mobilizing owners of 3D printers statewide to make face shields, masks and ventilator parts. As of April 7, 296 3D printers had produced 5,772 visors for 101 requesting organizations.
  • Hybrid Machining Inc. in Holland has become a pickup and drop-off point for face masks and is running its machines nonstop to produce more face masks and COVID-19 test swabs.
  • Hemco Gage in Holland is producing precision metrology tools for manufacturers making or tooling up to manufacture PPE, ventilators, respirators, hospital beds and more.
  • Herman Miller is reconfiguring its Greenhouse seating production facility in Zeeland and its Hickory Plant in Spring Lake to make, assemble and ship face masks and other PPE.
  • Die-Tech & Engineering in Wyoming is building dies for companies that will then make parts for ventilators.
  • Steelcase is using its plants, model shop and innovation center in Grand Rapids to produce isolation masks and face shields as well as sharing patterns developed in partnership with health systems that will allow anyone with a sewing machine to make masks.

On April 1, the MEDC announced it was launching the Pure Michigan Business Connect COVID-19 Emergency Access and Retooling Grants program, which will provide a total of $1 million in grants ranging from $10,000-$150,000 apiece for small manufacturers that are retooling to provide PPE “quickly” in response to COVID-19.

John Walsh, president and CEO of the Michigan Manufacturers Association, said April 3 his organization had identified about 300 of its 1,600 member companies that were willing to help make PPE. MMA was at the time vetting businesses on that list to determine which ones would be eligible to apply for retooling grants.

Meanwhile, the manufacturers in the above list are continuing to execute on their PPE or other COVID-19-related supply projects.

Bill Berry, president and CEO of Die-Tech & Engineering, said April 6 his company — which makes dies and molds for OEMs in various industries — was redirecting its nearly 50-person workforce to build about nine dies for Minneapolis-based Twin City Die Castings that the latter company will use to make a dozen different parts — including pistons — that will be shipped to Seattle-based Ventec Life Systems and Detroit-based General Motors for use in ventilator production.

According to episode 987 of NPR’s Planet Money podcast, “The Race to Make Ventilators,” Todd Olson, CEO of Twin City Die Castings, needed more dies — stat — to scale up casting of metal parts for Ventec and GM, which had formed a partnership to produce upwards of 20,000 ventilators a month for hospitals around the world.

Die-Tech, an existing supplier of Twin City, was able to help Twin City modify its parts so they could be built in high volumes and then committed to producing the number of dies needed in about half the time Twin City requested — two-and-a-half to three weeks at one location instead of five weeks via multiple tool and die suppliers. At press time, Die-Tech was two weeks into the job and had already shipped six of the nine planned dies to Twin City.

“We were able to deliver the first tooling in four-and-a-half days,” Berry said. The Planet Money episode noted this was possible by Die-Tech pulling in all of its engineers — “all hands on deck” — to work over that weekend.

Berry said he is glad to be part of this effort.

“If they can ramp up all the other parts, there’s a chance this will save thousands of people,” he said.

James Ludwig, vice president of global design and engineering at Steelcase, said on April 6 that conversations surrounding how his company could help in the fight against COVID-19 began about four weeks ago after a call from its customer Spectrum Health, which was looking for a solution to help protect workers in the emergency room and check-in areas from folks who were coming in to be tested for suspected cases of COVID-19.

Steelcase “rapidly” jumped in to help create and supply barriers, and then also added production of PPE such as face shields and masks.

Ludwig said every time Steelcase makes a new product, there’s a reconfiguration that happens, and this was no different.

“I kind of jokingly have said the way you make a mask is the way you make a seat cushion,” he said. “We’re virtually making a small seat cushion cover: it’s taking fabric, it’s creating a pattern (and) it’s sewing it out of materials that we’re familiar with in methods that we have within our system. The concept of sewing something like this wasn’t completely foreign to us.”

While continuing to fill other orders for essential businesses, Steelcase shifted dozens of workers to its critical medical supply effort and had produced and donated 20,000 facial shields and 10,000 masks as of press time. Ludwig said the company has the capacity to produce 8,000 masks and 13,000 to 14,000 shields per week for donation. Although the first wave of screens it produced were donations, Steelcase is looking for other markets in which to sell the screens, with the ability to produce up to 1,000 units per week.

Ludwig said the work is “personal” for Steelcase.

“There’s not a single person I know of (who) doesn’t have a neighbor, an aunt, a spouse that’s somehow affected either in the medical community or who is under threat of getting ill,” he said. “We felt that despite being a global company, our roots are here in West Michigan, and that made it very easy to start these conversations.”

He said Steelcase is currently having conversations in its product development spheres about what work will be like in the post-COVID world, both in the health care space and in other segments, and the company is looking to ideate products that will meet those future needs.

John Miller, dimensional engineering manager, and engineer Jonathan Wigger, at Herman Miller, spoke to the Business Journal April 7 about Herman Miller’s COVID-19 response.

Although the company initially said on March 23 after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order that it was shutting down all West Michigan manufacturing operations through April 13, Herman Miller subsequently resumed some production to fill government and health care contracts.

On top of that, Herman Miller also got a call from Stryker asking if it could produce mattress covers for the new emergency response bed the medical device maker was rolling out. Although that partnership didn’t come to fruition, Herman Miller kept working on other ideas in response to critical supply needs, including the production of masks for Holland Hospital.

Using a fraction of the workers from its normal production team — about 20 to 30 who are there by choice and not mandated — and putting in place social distancing practices or plexiglass barriers for the few cases in which workers have to be closer together than 6 feet, Herman Miller is now cutting and sewing the masks in its Greenhouse seating operation and also is making masks at its Hickory plant in Spring Lake.

Production was ramping up in the past week and Wigger said he expects the plants will eventually be able to produce “thousands” of masks per day.

Herman Miller also is standing by ready to make hospital gowns, depending on demand, and it also has a team working on 3D-printed face shields.

“Things are happening very quickly in this new environment,” Miller said. “The asks are coming in daily.”

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