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Humans of Manufacturing: Heroes

From Wallets to Face Shields

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.

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold across the globe and personal protective equipment (PPE) became in short supply, a wallet and outdoor gear manufacturer found themselves in the position to adapt and be a part of the solution. Founded in 2010, Flowfold started by making wallets out of recycled sailcloth. Over the years the company has expanded to manufacturing bags, backpacks, totes, pouches, and even dog gear. In mid-March, given the shortage of PPE in hospitals across the country, the company decided to pivot their business to make PPE for hospitals and health care facilities.

Members of the Flowfold team wearing face shields. Since their pivot, the company has grown from seven to a group of over 20. (Provided by Flowfold)

Flowfold suspended production of their usual line of bags, packs, and related travel and everyday accessories, and switched to the production of face shields, a crucial piece of equipment that keeps health care workers safe during prolonged face-to-face or close contact with potentially infectious patients. The shift not only provided needed safety gear to front line workers, but enabled Flowfold to keep their employees’ working—protecting salaries and healthcare benefits when many businesses were furloughing and laying off workers.

The company had moved into their new headquarters just a little over a year earlier, and have a flexible, technologically advanced factory, which includes a large, material cutting machine that usually prepares pieces of fabric for bags and wallets. The cutting machine, along with all their other machinery, was re-tasked to helping produce large quantities of protective face shields for the health care workers fighting the virus.

In March, hospitals across the country were experiencing shortages of PPE, putting health care workers at great risk. In the early days of the pandemic some hospital workers resorted to using goggles, bandanas, and makeshift face masks and shields to protect themselves. As a manufacturer with the capability to quickly test and develop products, Flowfold knew this was an area in which they could step up and provide support.

“We felt the effects of the virus in our community and wanted to be a part of the solution,” said Devin McNeill, Flowfold’s Co-Founder. “Taking a look at our production capabilities, we found we could quickly pivot to manufacture face shields.”

A Flowfold employee assembles face shields while taking precautions. (Provided by Flowfold)

As the company swiftly adapted their workspace and production process to produce these critical pieces of PPE, they made sure to do so in a safe and low-risk manner. Flowfold knew they could not provide protective equipment to hospitals if their own team wasn’t kept safe and healthy. Sewing machines were moved at least 6 feet apart, new, intensive cleaning schedules were put in place to make sure their factory stays decontaminated, and their doors are effectively locked to keep the workspace as sterile as possible.

Near the end of March, their first order of face shields went out to MaineHealth. MaineHealth is one of Maine's largest health care providers and was integral in Flowfold’s shift to producing PPE for hospitals and other health care facilities. The company had reached out to the health care provider on March 15 to ask how they could help. When looking through a catalog of 25 products the organization needed, Flowfold noticed the clear film used for face shields was a match for the plastic they used on the driver’s license windows of their wallets.

“It is times like these when coming together as a community to support one another – individuals, non-profit organizations and business partners – reflects the very best of humanity,” said MaineHealth CEO Bill Caron. “Flowfold is one such example of how collaboration and innovation will help us navigate the challenges ahead as we address this unprecedented health care crisis together.”

While pivoting their business and production to making face shields meant suspending initiatives such as their custom gear program and new product launches, Flowfold was committed to focusing their resources and manufacturing expertise towards the fight against COVID-19.

Since the company shifted production in March, they have added new equipment to improve the face shields they manufacture and cut waste. Flowfold was not only able to keep their core team of seven employees working during the pandemic, but also grew to include another 75 across Maine, working on a contract-basis producing face shields.

More recently, Flowfold has partnered with L.L.Bean to donate 8,000 face shields to the State of Maine for use by poll workers, volunteers and voters. L.L.Bean, a longtime partner of Flowfold, had opened the doors to their facilities and granted Flowfold much needed space to maintain their growing PPE operation after winning a contract to provide 500,000 face shields to the State of Maine in April. Flowfold is also donating an additional 1,000 face shields to voter volunteers in states outside of Maine and if you or someone you know will be working at a polling location, fill out the form on this page to get a face shield.

In the end, for Flowfold, they are proud to be a part of a community that comes together to face its challenges, no matter how unprecedented and daunting.

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