This article appeared in the November 2020 issue of MiMfg Magazine. Read the full issue and find past issues online.
Looking back, it’s pretty clear that the COVID-19 outbreak — and the national public health emergency that it created — revealed more than a few shortcomings.
Lack of PPE, ventilators and critical drugs raised red flags. And, in some ways, the many empty shelves in stores and overall product scarcity (sights Americans are not used to seeing) caused nearly as much national panic and concern as the virus itself.
Anyone who knows manufacturing knows there are a whole host of reasons for why things played out the way they did back in March, April and May. Pointing to the global economy with its emphasis on specialization, increased manufacturing in developing countries and just-in-time delivery of goods from distant locales may be an over-simplification of a complex matrix.
But this story isn’t focused on what was wrong, this story is about how manufacturing — specifically Michigan manufacturing — arose to the challenges of this turbulent time.
While the pandemic may have revealed some shortcomings, it ignited a level of resiliency, collaboration, innovation and resourcefulness right here in the great state of Michigan that hasn’t been seen here since, quite possibly, World War II.
Answering the Call for PPE
Carhartt knows a little something about persistence, toughness and protection. Based in Dearborn, they’ve been producing original and enduring workwear that serves and protects hardworking people in all lines of work since 1889. They’ve been through two world wars and 9/11, so they were prepared to act quickly.
“It was never a question of if we were going to do something, it was just a question of how fast we could get something done,” explains William Hardy, Carhartt’s Vice President of Supply Chain.
Carhartt immediately gathered their engineers and skilled crafts people. These teams collaborated to develop PPE prototypes, which included consulting with outside health care facilities and government agencies to design and develop appropriate hospital gowns. And within days, they had pivoted to production.
“I’m just so proud of our associates for stepping outside their comfort zone and making PPE so quickly,” says Hardy. “It just goes to show that our associates can make anything, given their knowledge base and capabilities.”
Meanwhile, up in the Upper Peninsula town of Ironwood, a different scenario was playing out. Jacquart Fabric Products, best known for its iconic Stormy Kromer-branded hats, saw that the state was on the verge of shutting down. Employees were worried about losing their jobs and Gina Thorsen, President and Co-Owner of Stormy Kromer, was worried about the future of her family’s business.
But then she received a voicemail. It was a call from a buying agent from a large health system based in Wisconsin.
“He sounded desperate and a little frantic,” says Thorsen, who is a third-generation leader of the still family-owned business. “He basically said, ‘I know you guys sew, and we need masks urgently. Is there any way you can help?’”
Miraculously, Stormy Kromer had a prototype ready the very next day. And from then on, things really took off.
“It was a very quick turnaround as far as the manufacturing process goes,” says Thorsen. “The first order was for 50,000 masks. But, when the word got out that we were making PPE, the flood gates opened.”
Stormy Kromer was contacted by more hospitals and health systems, nursing homes and even other companies. Thorsen says they partnered with a number of other textile manufacturers and even sent sewing machines to other companies in order to keep up with the demand.
And it wasn’t just clothing manufacturers responding. Landscape Forms, global designer and manufacturer of outdoor site furniture, structure and lighting headquartered in Kalamazoo, was also quickly responding in their own way.
Partnering with other Michigan based companies, their engineers put their 3D-printers to work printing pieces and parts for face shield production. And, because Landscape Forms was able to pay its manufacturing team members during its five-week shut down, they were able to organize volunteer teams of skilled labor that partnered with other local entities to build hospital relief beds.
Some manufacturers with Michigan facilities have a global footprint, which enabled them to see (and feel) the pandemic before it reached U.S. shores. For instance, 3M activated its global response team on 1/8/20.
“Being a leader in global safety, 3M has experienced many X-factor events. Viral outbreaks, hurricanes, tsunamis, wildfires…we respond every year to all these situations,” says Michael Vale, Executive Vice President of 3M’s Safety & Industrial Business Group.
But, by mid-January, Vale knew this was something bigger and gave the order to have every one of 3M’s global respiratory sites (six around the world, including two in the U.S.) go to full production, 24/7.
For 3M, this wasn’t about retooling to produce something new, this was about streamlining to increase production of what they already made. So, they dramatically simplified their product line for output effectiveness and collaborated with other companies who helped with flow, automation and data (which included Ford engineers looking at their operating lines) to help organically increase output with their existing equipment.
With this enhanced external collaboration, Vale forecasts that, “Domestically, we’ll finish the year going from producing 22 million N95 respirator masks a month to somewhere between 95 and 100 million a month, simply by increasing our capacity.”
Many have described it in different ways, but it was Vale from 3M who crystallized this thought: “One of the greatest positive effects of the COVID-19 outbreak on manufacturing has been the acceleration of collaboration — both internally and externally.”
Another Michigan manufacturer virtually created a whole new form of PPE — for building facilities.
Livonia-based Storch Products Co Inc., a worldwide supplier of Magnetic Conveyors, SuperMag Sweepers and magnetic materials came up with the idea of adding an external filter on the air supply vents in its corporate offices. It started as a simple precaution they took to help protect their employees by improving their facility’s air quality.
But, as Matt Carr, President of Storch and AIROTRUST explains, his employees had bigger ideas.
“They came back after the shutdown and thought this was a great potential product idea — kind of like PPE, or a mask, for the building,” Carr said. “It’s lightweight, and easily affixes to the exterior of the vent using magnets. It’s not intrusive, but it’s a visual reminder of the added steps a facility is taking to enhance air quality.”
JP Ladouceur, Director of Corporate Sales for Skyway Precision, Inc., an industry leader in machined components based in Plymouth, couldn’t agree more.
“We had people returning after the shutdown and we knew some weren’t completely comfortable,” said Ladouceur. “But these AIROTRUST filters provided a nice visual reinforcement to our employees of the measures we were taking to provide a safe working environment. And that created a positive feeling throughout the office.”
Donations and Community Outreach
As COVID-19 swept across our state and nation, Michigan manufacturers did more than just retool and collaborate to produce PPE. They also shared knowledge, made donations and supplied direct relief and support to their communities through a variety of ways.
Knowing they would be shut down for weeks, Landscape Forms gathered all the PPE they typically use during that period and donated it to local hospitals. Then, they did something else pretty interesting.
“We used the pandemic to document our high-level disaster recovery plan,” says Margie Simmons, Landscape Forms CEO, “We also created a safe work playbook and we shared these resources with all of our suppliers (many of whom are pretty small with limited resources) to help them start their businesses back up — and stay open with proper regulations and protocols.”
Bay City-based Michigan Sugar Company, producer of 1.1 billion pounds of sugar under the Pioneer® Sugar and Big Chief® sugar brands, supported its employees and surrounding communities in other ways.
“Our President went to the board with a plan to buy $135,000 worth of restaurant gift cards and hand them out to our employees,” says Rob Clark, Director of Communications & Community Relations. “Our board didn’t flinch. They said, ‘That’s exactly what we need to do.’”
The gift cards did more than show appreciation to the company’s 930 year-round employees and 1,000+ seasonal employees. The cash infusion helped provide a vital lifeline to local restaurants. “A number of phone calls ended with both sides in tears,” says Clark. “One restaurant owner told us that the night before he prayed for a miracle; he said he didn’t know how he was going to pay the rent that month.”
And Michigan Sugar didn’t stop there. They kicked production up 24/7 in their four processing factories located around Michigan to help keep up with pandemic demand.
As anyone who ventured into a grocery store during the state shutdown remembers, sugar, along with other staples like eggs, flour, rice and pasta just flew off the shelves.
“Everybody was at home baking,” says Clark. “We were dealing with a huge spike in demand while also managing the shutdown. From a manufacturing standpoint, these were demanding times that forced our employees to rise to that challenge — and they did.”
During this time, Michigan Sugar also distributed PPE to local hospitals from their company stockpile while also donating roughly 46,000 pounds of sugar to Hidden Harvest, which in turn, redistributed the sugar to regional food banks and food rescues.
Renewed Interest in American Brands and Manufacturing
It’s virtually impossible to overstate the harm that COVID-19 has wrought on our country in terms of lost lives, lost jobs, lost businesses, as well as even a lost sense of safety, security and community in the hearts and minds of many Americans.
However, it would be wrong to not also take stock in some of the positives that have emerged.
This pandemic — and the national health crisis it created — ignited a sense of duty, cooperation, responsibility, as well as personal and shared sacrifice for the sake of the common good like few national or global events can. With this, a renewed national awareness of the importance of American-made products and brands has emerged.
Gina Thorsen at Stormy Kromer can feel the change in national sentiment.
“The pandemic in general, and some of the spotlight that we received because of making masks and gowns, has really helped the Stormy Kromer brand and has put the spotlight back on American manufacturing,” says Thorsen. “I could hire 10 new people tomorrow!”
This, undoubtedly, is a good thing. Many manufacturers, because of the nature of their business, can sometimes be almost invisible in their communities. They produce pieces and parts that go into products and brands that enjoy more consumer awareness.
However, the pandemic has enabled many manufacturers to form tighter bonds with communities all over the country.
William Hardy of Carhartt states, “We’ve continued to serve our community by strengthening engagement in our hometown of Detroit as well as nationally with communities large and small where our factories are located.
“We’re inspired by the hard-working people in the communities we serve,” adds Hardy, “We’re asking ourselves, how can we further serve these communities? How can we get them some of the critical items they need? There’s pride there.”
As tough and tragic as the COVID pandemic has been, it has created opportunity for some manufacturers to step to the forefront again. For some, like AIROTRUST and Landscape Forms, whole new product lines have been introduced with the promise of new jobs and marketplace solutions. For many more manufacturers, it has provided a chance to prove to themselves that they have the resiliency, smarts, work ethic and collaborative spirit to do what’s needed — for their business — and their communities.
While there are a lot of positives to the current global economy, the pandemic has revealed that some work still needs to be done.
In the coming months and years, expect America to work toward being more self-sufficient regarding certain types of life-sustaining products and to improve production capabilities for critical drugs, medical devices, PPE and more. Supply chain mapping and sourcing of critical parts and materials will be key, as will reduced reliance on offshore sources for a variety of key products.
As Michigan manufacturers continue their role on the frontlines in defense against the pandemic, MMA will be in the halls of the State Capitol, deeply engaged with Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Administration and leaders in the Legislature to assure that our industry can continue to operate safely with predictability and productivity.
Whatever the future holds for increased U.S. production of critical products, there is no question that Michigan’s manufacturing base has the skills, the knowledge, the work ethic, as well as the skilled labor and deep emotional ties to the communities in which they operate, to take on this new challenge of national importance.
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