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Humans of Manufacturing: Heroes

Industrial Assembly Systems Manufacturer’s Shift to PPE Restores Dental School Services

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.

Across the country, as the COVID-19 pandemic caused stay at home orders, the shut down of bars, restaurants, movie theaters and gyms were the easy to see effects. However, for the University of Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry, it was more than just future dentists enrolled in their dental education programs that felt the impact. The Detroit-based school is dedicated to serving the City of Detroit and surrounding communities through their clinic and outreach programs. These include a senior outreach, a clinic at University Health Center at the Detroit Medical Center and a mobile clinic serving elementary school students. All these programs were put on hold earlier this year, stopping the dental health services the school provides to low income and disenfranchised populations, and reopening them depended in part on securing adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep the students and patients safe. Given the worldwide shortage of PPE, that was not an easy challenge to overcome but it had to happen before the students could continue their education and outreach.

Stephanie Price, software engineer for Promess, helped source face shield materials and set up a manual assembly line in the Promess manufacturing building. (Provided by Promess Inc.)

At the same time, a group of employees at Brighton, Mich.-based Promess Inc. were assembling an ad hoc team of management, assembly and mechanical engineering personnel with the goal of finding a way to produce PPE for local hospitals, first responders, dentists, traveling nurses, homeless shelters and nursing homes in Southeastern Michigan. Promess is a manufacturer of advanced industrial assembly systems and components, typically used on assembly lines to make engines and transmissions for cars, internal components for dishwashers and washing machines, and even equipment that makes medical devices such as pacemakers and surgical robots. Producing PPE was not part of its regular skill set, but the team was determined to produce emergency supplies of PPE and, with the support of Promess management, they did.

Since business was slow during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, instead of laying off employees or closing its operations, the company developed a plan to shift its manufacturing operations to temporarily making PPE. Stephanie Price, software engineer for Promess, was able to source the elastic straps, plastic sheeting, and foam needed to create face shields, and set up a manual assembly line in the Promess manufacturing building. The company taught employees whose work had slowed down how to assemble the various components into a finished product. Promess was then able to produce thousands of face shields, and by the time business returned back to normal, the company had plenty to share with the community.

The first products were shipped to St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Howell, Mich., Children’s Hospital in Detroit, several Brighton-area dentists’ offices, a group of local traveling nurses, the Independence Township, Mich., fire department and an assisted living facility in Flint, in April.

Challenge, Meet Solution

The early Promess PPE project was written up in a number of trade magazines and a local newspaper, the Livingston Daily, which is where Dr. Mike Pyatenko D.D.S. saw it late in May. Dr. Pyatenko is an Assistant Professor at the University of Detroit Mercy Dental School and he immediately saw an opportunity to help get his students back to work.

“The face shields Promess was producing then really caught my eye,” Dr. Pyatenko explained, “so I reached out to Promess to see if they could help us. They responded with some samples for us to test and then supplied enough to equip 288 of our students which will get them through a whole semester.”

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Students at the University of Detroit Mercy Dental School with their Promess-provided face shields. (Provided by Promess Inc.)

Promess has donated 320 face shields in all to the program, which are being used by first- and second-year students. The full PPE suite consists of medical-grade gown, single or double face masks, goggles or eyeglasses with side shields, gloves and the Promess-made face shields.

All students are trained in the proper donning and doffing of their PPE. The face shields are cleaned with approved surface disinfectants between uses to prolong their service life. Pyatenko expects the face shields to remain serviceable for an entire semester.

“Needless to say, the University of Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry is very appreciative that Promess was willing to help us remove a significant stumbling block toward our students' education and safety,” he said.

The University of Detroit Mercy Dental School has been educating dentists and hygienists for more than 86 years. The program’s graduates are socially conscious, ethical and evidence-based critical thinkers who are practice ready.

For Promess, the shift to PPE not only allowed them to give back to their community, but to continue supporting their workers while so many were getting laid off as businesses and industries temporarily closed to stop the spread of the virus. For Dr. Pyatenko and his students, the company’s efforts and gift meant more than a continuation of their education—it meant they too could continue their mission to help and serve those who need it.

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