Minnesota Manufacturers Answer Call to Produce Medical Products in Short Supply
Some Minnesota manufacturers spent the weekend mobilizing resources to start production on disposable face shields and other products needed by medical personnel in the fight against COVID-19.
Eden Prairie-based 3D printing manufacturer Stratasys Ltd., a 3D printing manufacturer whose technologies are used to create tools and parts for numerous industries from aerospace to automotive, set an initial goal of producing 5,000 face shields by Friday, March 27—at no cost to recipients.
Stratasys can make at least 800 items per day in Eden Prairie, and plans to tap its larger on-demand facilities in Texas and California. “We’ve got to find a way to get to a thousands per day. That’s sure the intention and I’m confident we’ll get there over the next few days,” said Aaron Pearson, the company’s vice president of public relations and analyst relations. “We’re all figuring this out as we go along.”
Dunwoody College of Technology is at the ready to receive the plastic material from Stratasys and provide the support material to finish each product. With classes moved online, the school’s machines are available, and so are its experts, said E.J. Daigle, dean of robotics and manufacturing. The college’s lead CNC (computer numerical control) machine instructor is setting up the process and three students in need of workshop hours volunteered to help. Daigle said the college may be able to finish as many as 1,000 shields per day. Dunwoody is donating the labor and tooling. Medtronic is helping as well, Pearson said.
As the organizations got to work on Sunday, President Trump rejected calls from governors and hospitals around the country to invoke the Defense Production Act, a law that would require private companies to contribute to the production of needed supplies and equipment. “We’re getting what we need without putting the heavy hand of government down,” White House adviser Peter Navarro said at Sunday’s briefing with the president.
One large hospital told Stratasys it uses 1,530 disposable face shields in a normal week—without the surge created by COVID-19—and they’re down to six days’ inventory on hand. Stratasys planned to post its face shield printing and assembly instructions on a special COVID-19 response page on its website so that any available 3D printing shop could jump in.
A small Minneapolis manufacturer, Woodchuck USA, also heeded the call for help over the weekend. Founder and Chairman Benjamin VandenWymellenberg said Woodchuck’s laser cutting machines—typically used to make wood journals, phone cases, luggage tags and other lifestyle products—are well suited to make the plastic face shields needed by medical professionals. Woodchuck plans to devote half of its manufacturing capacity to face shields this week and increase as necessary.
“If we need to be doing 90 percent, we will,” VandenWymellenberg said. “Lives are more important than wood products getting out.”
Woodchuck sells its goods through around 750 retailers nationwide. A larger chunk of its revenue comes from custom orders for corporate events. Both have fallen of significantly in the past two weeks, he said.
“We’re not going to make money (on face shields),” VandenWymellenberg said. “But it could help keep the lights on, keep people employed, and most importantly, help the medical community.”
In Duluth, outdoor gear manufacturer Frost River Trading is preparing to shift its production to personal protective equipment (PPE). For Frost River owner Christian Benson, there’s a personal dimension to the move: His wife, Andrea Hustad Benson, is an anesthesiologist at Duluth’s St. Luke’s Hospital. “She is on the front lines,” Benson said in an interview on KARE-11 in the Twin Cities.
Benson notes that Frost River Trading has the equipment and production facilities to manufacture and ship thousands of masks, hoods, and gowns every day. Now he’s hoping that PPE manufacturers will be willing to share their proprietary patterns and medical-grade materials. Benson also is seeking coordinate efforts of other Duluth-area cut-and-sew manufacturers.
“I get that PPE materials and patterns are proprietary and patent-protected, but protecting the medical staff standing up to protect the rest of us should take priority over everything right now,” Benson says. “We have equipment that can be tasked to perform complex cutting and skilled sewing staff to perform volume assembly.”
Still others are rushing to market with products that could potentially help the fight. Twin Cities event engineering and fabrication company ExhibitMax just announced a new BioMax Isolation System, designed to help hospitals meet increased quarantine requirements. Constructed of aluminum framework with PVC panels, the turn-key systems are said to be easy to move and disinfect. ExhibitMax plans to offer them for rent in response to potential overcrowding at hospitals.
How to help
But many companies are still trying to figure out how to help. Steve Kalina, president and CEO of the Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association, said he’s been fielding those calls. “The big OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) are ramping up as they’re able to simply pick up the phone and call the President or coordinate with each other. The two biggest questions I’m getting from manufacturers right now are: ‘How will I know if I’ll be deemed an essential business and keep operating?’ and “How do I connect with the right people to offer support on crucial items?'”
To that end, on Sunday evening, Medical Alley lauched an online tool to connect businesses with needs and support. The web page asks companies to answer a few questions about their capabilities and then points them in a useful direction.
“We know that many businesses will be tapped into for production needs and be short on resources, especially labor, while other companies will be shutting down and be laying off labor,” Kalina said. “The goal will be to connect these businesses to keep as many facilities and personnel operational to produce the critical goods.”
Kalina offers these recommendations to manufacturers:
- Evaluate CISA standards and understand where you potentially land with regards to essential business designation. Even though Minnesota may enact something different, it would be a good starting point. Be ready to explain examples or reasons you meet these standards.
- Reach out to your customers that are clearly essential businesses. Pro-actively ask them for a letter stating that you are an essential part of their supply chain. Many manufacturers are already receiving these letters from OEM customers.
- Reach out to your local legislators and share the letter that MPMA sent to Governor Walz regarding the potential of a shut-down and explain to your legislator specific examples on what a shut-down will mean for critical projects you support. The goal is to avoid too broad of a shut-down too soon. We need to make sure essential businesses avoid any lost production time.
- Register using Medical Alley’s site. Even if you don’t supply essential products or even if you’re not in medical, there are ways you can help. There may be companies supplying essential products that need labor support, raw materials, over-flow capacity for those critical products, or over-flow of non-crucial work so they can focus all their efforts on the essential projects.
TCB correspondent Gene Rebeck contributed to this report