On a Saturday afternoon, Tom Dempsey made the decision to retool his company SylvanSport toward producing essential items like face shields and other equipment that medical staff can use.
He had just canceled sending a tractor trailer full of product to a huge outdoor equipment sale in Wisconsin at the last second. This was supposed to be the company’s busiest few months of the year, leading up to summer.
Dempsey said he realized his company had the supplies and manufacturing capacity to feasibly make the production switch, with their normal manufacturing lines idle.
By Monday, SylvanSport engineers had produced its first essential items.
“It’s really been like trying to start a new company from scratch in one week,” he said.
Dempsey is one of many business leaders who have had to make tough decisions in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Some had their manufacturing plants deemed nonessential and shut down by their counties and the state, while others could still operate but suddenly no one was buying their products.
Companies like John Deere have repurposed North Carolina factories to make personal protective equipment like face shields, masks and gowns. Some businesses are donating the gear to local organizations, others selling the PPE in bulk to hospitals as a way to keep paying employees.
‘Keep lights on and the people paid’
Since the production change, SylvanSport has produced face shields, countertop shields and foot-activated door openers. They’ve also sourced masks, protective coverall suits and gowns for medical professionals.
The door openers originally came about as a way to protect the company’s employees. On Sunday, the day after Dempsey decided to make the change to essential products, he was in the Brevard factory making small changes like propping doors open so employees didn’t have to touch them.
Chuck Guffey, an engineer at the company, told him he could make something to open the restroom doors without touching the handle.
Dempsey said after the foot-activated door openers were made, he thought, “Well, if we need them, then lots of folks are going to need them.” He said the item has been really popular with essential businesses and those who are about to reopen, like small healthcare providers, hotels and restaurants.
SylvanSport also recently began creating mobile negative pressure isolation rooms — a room around the size of a small garden shed with clear windows and a filtration system that controls the movement of air into and out of the room. They can be used by hospitals to test and treat folks for COVID-19, without releasing contaminants into surrounding areas.
The company’s most popular product is a compact recreational vehicle, so Dempsey said the portable isolation space was “right in the core competency we have.”
While the business has hired two more employees for its manufacturing line since the pandemic began to help with production, he said, “it’s honestly very challenging to know what the future holds.”
For now, Dempsey said the essential equipment effort is to try to cover payroll by pricing goods just above costs.
“We’re just trying to keep lights on and the people paid,” he said.
‘A get-in-the-fight strategy’
The furnishing and bed industries, like many others, have slowed down to nearly no production across the country.
N.C.-based companies Hickory Springs Manufacturing, whose products range from bed frames to furniture and bus seats, and Kingsdown, which makes luxury bedding, have both seen drastic changes to their factories. When the pandemic forced them to furlough employees and shut down plants, both companies first moved to making hospital mattresses and bed frames.
Michael Hinshaw, COO of Hickory Springs Manufacturing, said it took 30 days from concept to production for hospital beds.
Kingsdown CEO Frank Hood said the company had to petition for essential status to its local government in Mebane. Then, he said, the company’s engineers quickly changed their bedding equipment to easily sanitized beds for hospitals.
But when the spread of COVID-19 slowed, both companies found the need for hospital beds wasn’t nearly as severe as expected. Instead, hospitals were asking for PPE.
Hood and Hinshaw said they were contacted by local governments and hospital organizations, asking if they could make items like masks and gowns and if they could make the protective gear last longer.
“Every health care provider I’ve talked to has talked about the need for domestic product PPE,” Hinshaw said.
Hickory Springs Manufacturing already had the raw materials and sewing equipment, so the company designed a pleating machine, reset the layout and cleaned some of its production facilities, and began making masks and gowns. In those factories, Hinshaw said, the company either hasn’t had to lay off employees or is actively hiring.
He said the PPE is “going as fast as we can bring it to market” in N.C., Georgia and other states across the Southeast.
“When you have the right skills and the equipment to make it happen… it’s serendipitous,” Hinshaw said.
Hood said the process for Kingsdown’s production retooling was based on how the company can help medical workers and how they could get employees back to work safely. He said the company is currently working to pivot again from hospital mattresses, trying to repurpose its nine production sites in N.C. for PPE after it received requests for millions of PPE for the state.
The business is working from bottom-up in government to get contracts for producing the protective equipment.
“We aren’t in this to profit from it,” Hood said. “This was a get in the fight strategy.”
“Hopefully we can pull this off,” he said.
John Deere face shields
A John Deere factory in Illinois was closed down for maintenance when the company identified a need for face shields for responders and in hospitals across the U.S. So the company found an open-source design for the PPE, pulled employees back in and began production.
It’s a simple design, using plastic sheets, foam and elastic bands for ear straps. The company has already made around 200,000 of the shields and donated them to health care providers, nursing homes and others.
“The whole thing has just kind of exploded,” said Dan Bernick, a John Deere spokesperson.
Matt Williams, manager of Environment, Safety & Health at John Deere Turf Care in Fuquay Varina, said the company’s focus has been on medical responders in John Deere communities. The company donated 100 face shields to both the Fuquay Varina police and fire departments.
Fuquay Varina fire chief Tony Mauldin said John Deere contacted them about the PPE and “we jumped right on it, absolutely.”
Mauldin said because of the donation, each member of his staff now has a personal face shield that they can keep. Before, the department just had enough to keep a few on each truck. He said firefighters had been wearing goggles and glasses when they went on calls, but they would fog too easily.
They’re now wearing the shields on “nearly every call. You just can’t take that chance,” Mauldin said.
In the Triangle area, John Deere has already donated 1,000 face shields to Duke hospital and the company is hoping to provide more to Wake Med and UNC Health.
The company is hoping to produce near 500,000 shields in total.