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Humans of Manufacturing: Heroes

Repurposing in the Buckeye State

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 COVID-19 spread across the United States, states found themselves in need of producing and sourcing critically needed supplies. In Ohio, that was aided by the Ohio Manufacturing Alliance to Fight COVID-19 (OMAFC), and if you were to name one person as the individual most responsible for the OMAFC, it would have to be Governor Mike DeWine. In early April, it was DeWine who announced the repurposing project, officially launching a statewide program to leverage Ohio’s tremendous manufacturing capabilities for the production of everything from mechanical ventilators to disposable gowns. It was a bold and brilliant move.

A testing booth designed by MAGNET as part of the the OMAFC to save time and protective equipment in COVID-19 testing. (Photo/MAGNET)

That said, it was Eric Burkland, president of The Ohio Manufacturers' Association (OMA), who took the calls from member companies asking, “How can we help?” It was Burkland who spoke with his counterpart at the Ohio Hospital Association (OHA) about the shortage of face shields, isolation gowns, and other personal protective equipment (PPE). It was his idea to create an alliance of manufacturers, and he was the one who presented the idea to the governor. Granted, there’s been no shortage of people and companies standing with him, but Burkland has clearly been a leader in Ohio’s response to the pandemic.

This story isn’t about assigning credit, however—it’s about saving lives. Thanks to OMAFC’s efforts, nearly 2,000 Ohio manufacturing firms have joined the fight against COVID-19. Hudson-based Little Tikes, for example, has committed to the production of more than 750,000 face shields for healthcare workers. ROE Dental Laboratory in Cleveland doubled its 3D printing capacity, investing in more than three dozen new machines and bringing close to 100 furloughed employees back to work as part of an effort to produce one million testing swabs. Recognizing the risk to older Ohioans, Procter and Gamble donated 4,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, plastic container manufacturer Axium donated 16,000 bottles, Cleveland Whiskey donated the time needed to fill them, and the Ohio Department of Aging saw to their distribution.

There are many more examples of Ohio’s commitment. Anheuser-Busch, BASF, Commercial Cutting, Eaton, GOJO Industries, Industry Products Company, Special Design Products, Talent Tool and Die—these are just a few of the companies that have joined the coalition, each kicking in with people, materials, and expertise. Their efforts have been highly successful. With support from the Ohio Manufacturing Extension Program (Ohio MEP), JobsOhio, the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network (MAGNET), and dozens of partner groups, the coalition of manufacturers—none of which were in the PPE business before the pandemic—have illustrated what well-intentioned people and organizations can do for others when the need arises.

Eric Burkland, president of The Ohio Manufacturers' Association (OMA)

Yet Burkland will tell you there’s more to this story than identifying product needs and finding manufacturers to fulfill them. There’s also distribution of the goods, financing of the materials and tooling needed to build them, technical and logistics support, and other aspects of the supply chain that can’t be ignored. For this, OMAFC relies heavily on support from the public and private sectors alike, groups that “work hand in glove, each contributing in whatever way they can to make this thing work.”

Burkland also noted that development of new technologies (or redeployment of old ones) was needed. “At one point, our team ended up repurposing the plastics used in garbage bags, working with companies that do cutting and heat fusing to turn them into disposable gowns,” he said. “We ran into a similar situation with swabs. It turned out that the materials used to make them were being sourced from China or Northern Italy, both of which were hot spots at the time. So again, we worked with several 3D printing firms here in Ohio to develop a swab from domestically available polymers, then got the FDA to fast track its approval.”

Despite these successes, it’s become clear to Burkland and his team that America has lost some of its once enormous manufacturing capabilities. A nationwide shortage of industrial sewing machinery, for instance, forced the group to “cobble together some really old technology” in order to produce wearable goods like masks and caps. They’ve since turned to a machine builder in Germany—the preferred manufacturer of such equipment—and are working to expedite the delivery of highly-automated sewing lines to Ohio.

Still, Burkland sees promise in what has been a difficult lesson for Ohio and the rest of America. “We’re looking beyond the short-term gap towards long-term reshoring, and significant tightening of the supply chain,” he said. “We've demonstrated that this sort of deep public-private partnership can compete on important products that we as a nation have allowed to go overseas, thus hurting our domestic manufacturing capabilities. I think that if we do this right, we do this together, and we do this based on a collaborative model, that we can successfully bring much of our manufacturing back to the states and build capacity for the future. Americans have a short memory, but hopefully we’ve learned from this, and can move forward in the right direction.”

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