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Humans of Manufacturing: Heroes

Car Cover Manufacturer Pivots to Gowns and Masks

In times of need, manufacturing is driven by a philosophy John Lennon said best, “There are no problems, only solutions.” Today, manufacturers have pivoted to produce the critical supplies and equipment necessary to battle COVID-19 at a rate never seen before. SME’s Humans of Manufacturing Heroes Edition tells the stories of the teams, companies and partnerships adapting to produce the tools needed to fight this global pandemic. Going behind the scenes to share how these once-in-a-lifetime transformations are happening and the people making it all possible.

Masks may get all the attention during the current COVID-19 crisis, however for healthcare workers on the front lines critical PPE means more than just masks. Need, opportunity and ingenuity combined when some healthcare workers in Pauls Valley, Okla., told their spouses—who worked at Covercraft Industries LLC—that they couldn’t get the medical gowns necessary for protection from COVID-19. Covercraft, a company that has made car covers, seat covers and other car accessories since 1965, had excess car cover material well-suited to make non-surgical gowns and protective face masks and temporarily transitioned its product line to meet the new demand.

Covercraft President Clay Callan with a gown in progress. (Provided by Covercraft Industries LLC)

“Healthcare workers had difficulty getting PPE,” Clay Callan, Covercraft president, said. “They were complaining to their spouses who happened to work here. We started talking about it. We realized we can make masks. We can make gowns. We had some excess material from a program that didn’t work. It’s water resistant and similar to the material used for gowns. We realized this will work.”

That was late March. Covercraft had just furloughed 80 percent of its workers because of the pandemic. The company offered incentives and recalled about 15 percent for the new project, he said.

Workers created a pattern for gowns, cut a few samples, then tweaked the pattern, Callan said. Although the gowns weren’t to be FDA-certified, the company sent the gowns to an outside lab for testing to make sure they were water-resistant, he said.

“If a patient bleeds, spits, coughs or throws up, the gowns will protect the body from fluid,” Callan said. “It’s not an FDA-certified gown, but they’re made from material that protects healthcare workers from the hazards of sick patients.”

The material is a non-woven, thick plastic, laminated fabric that offers excellent UV protection as a car cover, Callan said. Once the material was deemed ok for gowns, switching production was fairly straightforward, he said.

“It was relatively easy for us to transition over,” Callan said. “We have automated CNC cutters that cut the fabric.” Then workers who normally sewed car covers sewed the gowns.

The gowns were sold as disposable but could be washed and actually performed slightly better at repelling dust after being washed, he said.

The gowns went first to local healthcare workers and first responders, Callan said. “Then we started getting orders from other places,” he said.

When Covercraft began getting requests for masks, the company pivoted to make those as well. The masks are non-woven fabric, three microns thick, two or three times thicker than T-shirt material, he said.

A Covercraft employee sews gowns. The car accessory maker pivoted to making gowns for frontline workers at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Provided by Covercraft Industries LLC)

The company made 260,000 gowns and 135,00 masks in April and May, selling them for enough to cover its minimum margin costs, Callan said.

To ensure safe working conditions, the company checked employee temperatures before shifts, sprayed their hands with a special hand sanitizer that lasts eight hours, changed the break schedule, staggered lunch times, added extra social distancing training protocols and had supervisors walk through the shop to make sure workers maintained social distancing, Callan said.

“One of the biggest challenges was redesigning the workstations for social distancing so they were all separated six feet apart,” he said.

Then Covercraft ran out of its excess material and realized that sourcing new material would likely price the company out of the market.

“We were concerned when the material supply base in China ramped up, we wouldn’t be cost competitive,” Callan said. “In June, we transitioned back to our core products.”

Overall, the experience was a win for all concerned.

“It was pretty exciting when we started recalling workers,” Callan said. “We did this largely because we wanted to be a good steward in our community to make sure our healthcare workers had what they needed. It was a total team effort.”

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