They’re heroes you might not hear about.
But they’re there, day in and day out, creating a front line of defense for health care workers on the front line of the COVID-19 battle.
More join the ranks every day, fighting as close to side-by-side as 6-foot distancing allows.
Some companies are completely switching specialties, producing health care items they never imagined. Others are retooling and bringing back furloughed workers to keep up with medical supply demands.
During World War II, Rosie the Riveter stood as an iconic hero symbol of factories dropping their specialties to manufacture aircraft parts and other war necessities.
Factory workers are once again stepping up with critical behind-the-scenes production of what communities need most right now: personal protective equipment for health care workers.
Spectrum Health Supply Chain manager Travis Barkel said the generosity of the manufacturing world and community is inspiring.
Primera Plastics and Byrne Inc. are making face shields. Petoskey Plastics is creating isolation gowns. Steelcase is handling plastic shields, masks and more. Keystone Solutions Group is pitching in with swabs and vials. Rapids Venture is adapting CPAP machines to help people breathe. Gentex is making handles for hospital privacy curtains so providers can avoid touching the cloth. Forerunner 3-D Printing and Bissell teamed up to make filters for ventilation machines. American Seating and Irwin Seating are producing masks. The list goes on and on.
“I had a lot of people reach out to me asking, ‘What do you need, what can we do?’” Barkel said.
Company leaders would describe their manufacturing capabilities and Barkel and his Supply Chain team would match needs.
“Sometimes we’d say, ‘Well, if you can do that, can you do this?” Barkel said. “A lot of these companies didn’t see themselves doing anything like this. They just wanted to reach out and help. The outreach has been amazing.”
Barkel said he receives about 100 emails an hour from companies wanting to help, or corresponding about current production matters. Some have already ramped up, others just beginning, but new manufacturers are joining the re-tooling roster daily.
“The spirit of ‘wanting to help’ has been overwhelming,” he said. “It’s impressive. The outpouring has been crazy. Staying on top of emails has been crazy, but that’s a good problem to have.”
Barkel said he’s also impressed with the collaboration between hospitals during these trying times. People that don’t often work together are coming together to find creative solutions for all.
“I’ve worked closely with supply chain leaders with other hospitals, asking about sources they’ve used,” Barkel said. “It’s been a big network in the state of everyone helping out. It’s like, ‘Hey, I found a vendor who can do this; I found a company that can do this.’ It’s been a big collaboration.”
Barkel said without the flexibility and generosity of the community, things could be a lot worse.
“We’re fortunate having such big industries in automotive, furniture and technology all within West Michigan that we could resource,” he said. “You wouldn’t normally think these are companies you would normally go to for medical things, but they’ve gotten up to speed quickly.”
Some of the companies are donating the items, as well as their time.
“No one is ever charging more than cost,” Barkel said. “They say, ‘I just want to be able to put my people to work and keep my people employed.’ Whatever life looks like on the other side of this, I think a lot of these local companies have found customers in their own back yard they may have never thought of before.”
Companies never would have approached health care leaders saying, “We can make face shields,” Barkel said. They had their own specialties and product lines.
But when COVID-19 arrived, many manufacturers quickly adapted to meet the needs of their communities.
“It’s really amazing,” he said. “And they’re all working together, too. Genesis and Irwin Seating and Ventura in Zeeland and Steelcase are all making masks for us. If one company figures out a design improvement, they share it. I have CEOs of companies who are often competitors who are working together to find a solution for us.”
The things that used to matter, seem to not. Competition has been replaced with compassion and action.
“It’s impressive how hierarchy has been set aside and we’ve all been able to pitch in and achieve things through amazing amounts of collaboration,” Barkel said.
Bambi Hollingsworth, vice president of manufacturing at Zeeland’s Primera Plastics, said after learning of Spectrum Health’s need for face shields on March 26, her team came up with a design and proposal the next morning. Prototypes and limited production launched the following work day.
“We’ve been doing everything manually until the die cuts are created and made,” she said. “Starting next week, everything will be done by die cut.”
Manually, they produced an average 1,000 face shields a day. When dies are completed this week, that ramps up to an average 6,000 per day. She expects Spectrum Health will have 100,000 of the face shields by the end of the month.
“We normally manufacture automotive and furniture, including health care furniture,” Hollingsworth said. “We’re prioritizing the face shields. If it’s something we can do, let’s do it. Everyone has been here long hours. Everyone was willing to volunteer and do that to help everyone on the front lines.”
Many of the 38 current employees are working 10- to 12-hour days producing face shields. They stand a minimum of 6 feet apart from each other.
“We have an awesome staff that all work well together and step up to help whenever there’s an urgency for any of our customers,” Hollingsworth said. “Honestly, we’re just happy to help.”
Forerunner 3-D Printing
Paul DeWys, owner of Forerunner 3-D Printing in Coopersville, said he and his company are working with Spectrum Health Innovations and Bissell to create replacement ventilator filters, which need to be replaced every 24 hours.
“We are handling all the reverse engineering, CAD design and additive manufacturing,” DeWys said. “Bissell is using their expertise in filter development to evaluate the current filter and then figure out what we could use that is locally available that would work.”
Although still in the design phase, DeWys anticipates producing between 100 and 500 filters per day, depending on need. If demand eclipses 100 per day, he expects to bring employees back from layoff.
DeWys said speed is of the essence.
Because of experts all under one roof, DeWys said his company is able to get projects from the drawing board and into doctors’ hands in a swift manner. He and his employees are happy to help.
“It’s the right thing to do,” DeWys said.
Rapids Venture in Grand Rapids normally produces food carts. It has completely retooled to help combat COVID-19.
Jim Meeks, co-founder of Rapids Venture said his staff worked with Spectrum Health Innovations to design a new concept for an assisted ventilator. This allows Spectrum Health to utilize CPAP machines for patients who need mild to moderate breathing assistance, freeing up valuable ventilator resources for people who most need them.
“Not only did we change what we produce, we will be producing something newly created with the help of Spectrum Health Innovations,” Meeks said.
Meeks said he’s proud of the collaboration he sees among West Michigan companies, coming together for a common cause.
“I think it’s extraordinary,” he said. “West Michigan companies are used to working with each other. We went from concept to design to production in about 10 days. We’re collaborating with people at Whirlpool, Bissell and others.”
Health care, and the safety of health care workers and patients, became the focus.
“We talked with them about the design, parts, sourcing the supply chain and engineering,” Meeks said. “There was a lot of collaboration, a lot of phone calls and a lot of brainstorming together. We’re hoping with Spectrum Health putting their design into this that we can use it throughout the state and nation if necessary.”
Genesis Seating in Kentwood typically produces upholstery for furniture. They’re now making cloth face masks for Spectrum Health, government and non-profit health care organizations.
“We started production this week and are hoping to produce roughly 80,000 masks for Spectrum,” said Kevin Kuske, Genesis Seating private label president.
“We did not need to retool any equipment, but we did need to work with Steelcase and Spectrum to develop a design, source materials that do not conflict with other health care supply chains and train our sewing team to make these masks. We are bringing back to work employee volunteers to staff this effort.”
Kuske said employees greeted the opportunity with enthusiasm.
“Our team was ecstatic to help out,” he said. “Many of them have family members and friends who work for Spectrum and other health care groups and they want them protected. We all want to feel like we are helping bring this crisis to an end, and this is the part we can play to help protect those on the front line who are putting their health at risk every day to care for those in need.”
The Irwin Seating team in Walker is making thousands of fabric masks for Spectrum Health.
“As we make masks, our teams are following strict procedures to ensure employee health and safety, including entry screening, social distancing and frequent hand-washing,” said Jason Vanderground, director of marketing for Irwin Seating Company. “Spectrum Health has even agreed to provide on-site support for our entry screening protocols.”
Irwin Seating is also making 10,000 masks for local veterans homes, assisted living facilities, mental health organizations and first responders.
Steelcase, Inc. is designing and sharing solutions for personal protective equipment, and producing them with distancing in full force. Workers are making transparent screens to protect health care employees during patient entry screenings. It only took the operations team three hours to come up with a prototype.
Within a week, production ramped to full capacity.
“It’s personal,” says James Ludwig, Steelcase vice president of design and engineering. “We all have a neighbor who is a nurse, or a colleague’s wife who is an EMT or an ER doctor living down the block. This is about delivering on a promise we make to each other because we are part of a community.”
Steelcase is sharing face mask and face shield designs with anyone who wants to help in that production area.
“We want to share what we’re doing and how we’re doing it incredibly fast,” Ludwig said. “When the mission is clear and the problem is pressing, barriers melt away in insignificance.”
Petoskey Plastics in Northern Michigan is making protective medical gowns on production lines that normally would be churning out automotive seat covers.
So far, workers have manufactured and shipped 32,000 to Spectrum Health to assist health care workers, according to Matt Keiswetter, the company’s packaging division manager.
“We want to do our part to step up and manufacture supplies that will help protect all of the brave and hardworking health care workers on the front line of fighting this COVID-19 pandemic,” Keiswetter said.