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Humans of Manufacturing: Heroes

How a Volunteer Side Project Became a Vital Product Offering

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.

Envision's David Stupay demonstrates one of the organization’s mask designs. (Photo/Envision, Inc.)

As the current health crisis threatens the livelihood of manufacturers around the country, an idea for masks from a team member at Envision Dallas, which predominantly employs people with blindness or visual impairments, has helped the organization flourish.

For those with significant vision loss, finding employment is one of life’s many hurdles. In fact, more than 70% of Americans who are blind or visually impaired are not employed full time.

Envision Dallas and its parent, Envision, Inc., aim to reduce these statistics.

The organization is one of the largest employers in the country of individuals who are blind or low vision. And its mission is to improve the quality of life for those with blindness or visual impairments.

According to David Stupay, executive director of Envision Dallas, one way the organization accomplishes this is by creating meaningful employment opportunities.

“Our customers, which include the federal and state government, U.S. military, and commercial entities, receive high-quality goods, while we provide work for a group of people who have historically been shut out of the job market,” he said. “It’s an amazing opportunity to add value and provide much-needed resources and support.”

In this vein, when the COVID-19 health crisis began to unfold in March, the organization looked for ways to assist its workforce and the broader community.

“We take care of our people, so their needs were our top concern. One of the immediate decisions we made was to give an additional two weeks of paid time off to help them navigate through this unprecedented time,” Stupay added.

At the top of the priority list was the safety and support of their staff.

“Since we produce for the government, our work was deemed an essential service,” said Stupay. “With a workforce largely made up of people with visual impairments, our production lines already have special accommodations and setups. We have successfully addressed logistical challenges brought about by social distancing, and our staff has remained healthy and safe.”

One of the ways Envision ensured the safety of its employees was by providing masks. But they weren’t just any masks—they were an idea originating from a member of the organization’s sewing team.

The sewing team at Envision Dallas consists of 48 people. Other products the organization produces include writing instruments, eyeglass cases, and textiles. (Photo/Envision, Inc.)

“When Dallas County issued a mask ordinance in March, it was difficult to find any on the shelves,” said Stupay. “So some of our sewing team began crafting cloth masks in their spare time.”

At this point, one of the sewing team members wondered if Envision might do the same for its employees, putting in motion a new product idea that has helped sustain the organization’s production.

Initially, Envision made masks for its more than 500 employees in its Dallas and Wichita locations. Soon after, they began donating masks, and the program took off quickly from there.

“Helping the community is one of the pillars of our organization, so once our staff had masks, we wanted to keep going as a way to help people,” Stupay said. “Then, the orders started coming in.”

What started as a volunteer side project on the weekends turned into a fruitful product offering.

“Since April, we’ve donated 2,000 masks to healthcare facilities and other organizations in multiple states,” said Stupay. “We’ve also received contracts representing production of more than 125,000 masks, and we’re not anticipating it to slow down any time soon.”

Stemming from the original mask design, the Envision team now has three prototypes in production. One, in particular, was designed with mobility issues in mind.

“We realized that some people have difficulty tying the strings on our original masks, so we pivoted to be sure that anyone can use our products,” Stupay said. “We developed and tested it on first graders to adults to ensure a snug fit for everyone.”

At a time when unemployment levels across the nation are skyrocketing, the masks have become a welcomed safeguard for the visually-integrated Envision team.

“Mask production has kept the sewing team working throughout the pandemic,” Stupay said. “We have employees who are blind or visually impaired putting sliding beads on the ear loops to make the masks adjustable for a secure fit, as well as handling different parts of the production process.”

He added: “COVID-19 could have been very damaging to our business. But, with the ingenuity and support of our team, we’ve emerged healthier and stronger than ever.”

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