The saying, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” has never felt more apt than in the fight against COVID-19. Luckily, Northeast Wisconsin is the mother of all inventors and innovators.
As the pandemic began to spread throughout the country and state and federal governments put out calls for more personal protective equipment for health care and front-line workers, Wisconsin manufacturers stepped up with remarkable speed.
For those who know the state’s manufacturers, their efforts were inspiring but not surprising.
“Northeast Wisconsin’s manufacturing capabilities have had an unprecedented role in helping our state, the U.S. and the world battle the COVID-19 pandemic. Manufacturers have ramped up and are making products today that were not even engineered three months ago. This is because of their ingenuity and collaboration among their suppliers,” says Barb LaMue, president and CEO of New North, Inc.
As a leading producer of converted paper products, the New North was well positioned to respond, LaMue says. Converters take jumbo mill rolls of paper, nonwovens and film and transform them into finished products such as hospital gowns and masks that have been vital in the fight against COVID-19. The region also is home to makers of sanitizing wipes, including Rockline Industries in Sheboygan and Top Brass Inc. in Wittenberg.
The innovation, however, doesn’t stop at paper products. Many manufacturers, motivated not by profit but by a desire to help the greater good, developed solutions in a matter of days or weeks.
“This is a testament to not only the ingenuity but also the deep sense of patriotism and caring shown by companies in our region,” LaMue says.
Carnivore Meat Co. owner and CEO Lanny Viegut was coming home from a trip in mid-March when the seriousness of the COVID-19 situation first hit him. His inventor’s mind sprang to action quickly trying to identify ways he and the Green Bay company could help.
A week or so later, Viegut heard President Trump mention the need to sterilize and reuse medical equipment such as masks. Viegut quickly thought of the new ultraviolet machine his company had purchased and planned to use to sanitize equipment and finished goods and products.
Viegut reached out to the leader of an area health care organization, and the two began to discuss the possibility of Carnivore donating the use of its machine for sanitizing medical equipment. By the first week in April, the machine was up and running at a secure offsite facility in Green Bay.
Public and private organizations from nursing homes to funeral homes were desperate for clean masks and began reaching out to see if they could use it. Later, representatives from the State of Wisconsin came and looked at the machine with the intention of using it to create a model for others in the state.
“I never thought at all about impact. I just was excited because I knew we could help,” Viegut says. “It was almost like this childlike excitement of trying to make this work and trying to help figure it out. I would have never thought about the wide range of uses and the range of organizations that would desire to use it.”
Carnivore donated use of the machine, which runs continuously, as well as the time and talent of members from its technology and engineering teams. The company has committed to lending the machine for at least six months and will allow its use as long as it’s needed.
Viegut’s generosity doesn’t stop there, however. At the end of March, he announced the creation of the Vital Relief Challenge, which encouraged businesses leaders and CEOs to support nonprofits. Carnivore kicked it off with its own donation of $100,000, which went to food pantries, shelters and community outreach organizations.
Carnivore sent checks to many nonprofits and inspired others to donate as well. One Rhode Island pet food company Carnivore works with saw the challenge and created its own, donating $100,000 to help organizations in communities in that state.
“They didn’t know what to say,” Viegut says of the calls of thanks he’s received from nonprofits. “That’s when you know what you’re doing is impactful.”
Helping hurting businesses
As a manufacturer that has a long history of working with the foodservice industry, leaders at Sheboygan’s Vollrath Co. realized quickly the role the company could play in helping restaurant partners find solutions to get back to business safely.
“We know the foodservice and hospitality industry has taken a hit, and we want to help out as much as we can,” says Jocelyn Da Silva, product manager for Vollrath’s Stoelting division.
The manufacturer developed several solutions that help restaurants and others in the service industry keep customers safe. Da Silva says within about a week, Stoelting successfully converted a product focused on cleaning and sanitizing frozen treat machines to one that could be put to many uses.
The Mobile Cleaning, Sanitizing and Disinfecting System is a cart on wheels that does all that its name implies. With two options available, one that requires a direct water source, and one that is fully self-contained, it allows the user to park the cart and clean and sanitize as needed.
The cart’s features include a sink with a foldable faucet and an extendable drain board for extra counterspace. Its spray wand allows users to spray disinfecting solution onto surfaces and floors.
“We wanted to make sure it encompassed kind of a one-stop shop, so that’s what we tried to focus on,” Da Silva says.
Vollrath received a lot of interest in the cart, and Da Silva says it offers solutions for venues such as restaurants, hotels and casinos. The latter can use the cart’s spray wand to sanitize slot machines on a frequent basis.
Vollrath also expanded its breath and safety guards, which it has been making for more than 60 years to help protect against food contamination. The focus has become providing an added layer of protection between employees and potential customers as well as people who work together, says Paul Egbert, vice president of smallwares and countertop equipment for Vollrath.
“Because of COVID-19 and social distancing guidelines, there became a significant need, and almost overnight, to provide protection for people and to help curb the spread of the virus,” he says.
Vollrath’s breath guards and safety guards offer flexible, customizable solutions that include vertical, angled and adjustable barriers that can be made from polymers or glass. The guards work well for many applications, including pass-through transaction areas, hotel reception areas, cafeteria tables and barriers for office environments, Egbert says.
As for restaurants, Egbert predicts barriers between diners will become more commonplace, and many businesses may put in place more elegant, permanent solutions.
“That’s what’s going to be needed for a restaurant to have a profitable existence. Floor-standing barriers between tables will help restaurants get back to normal capacity,” he says.
In addition to its products, Vollrath recently began offering free consulting services to provide recommendations on current and new products to guide reopening.
The fight against COVID-19 is personal for many, whether it’s concern for a loved one working in the medical field or worry about protecting vulnerable family members from becoming gravely ill. Personal connections galvanized manufacturing leaders from two New North companies.
Patrick Santini, CEO of ModTruss in Fond du Lac, is a former Army medic whose significant other works as an emergency room physician at the VA hospital in Milwaukee. Unlike many others, the pair began to identify COVID-19 as a serious risk in early winter.
“The two of them saw this coming back in February and said, ‘this is really going to be nasty,’” says David Ostmann, vice president of ModTruss.
Much of the business for the manufacturer, which has built trusses for 17 Super Bowls, centers on the entertainment and travel industries, both of which slowed significantly. This gave the company the chance to focus on developing a bio-containment unit.
With the help of Santini’s partner, they determined it would need to have micron filtration and be the correct size to fit a hospital bed and additional equipment such as ventilators as well as staff. Within about a week, the company created a prototype, and the first production model was ready one week later.
The units offer a negative pressure environment. Positive pressure pushes air in, while negative pressure pulls air in. Pulling air in keeps contamination contained, Ostmann says.
The company has sold some of the units to West Coast health clinics, but Ostmann says he sees opportunities for many organizations to put the units to good use.
“I’m going to put logic on the side of this and say it makes sense because of what a negative pressure room provides, that you try to keep contamination contained by putting COVID-positive patients in these rooms,” he says.
Care about a loved one working in the medical field also inspired a Jagemann Stamping leader to help in the fight against the virus. Nathan Dudney, director of sales and business development for Jagemann Stamping in Tennessee, learned about the need for face shields from his wife, a physician at a Nashville hospital.
The Manitowoc-based company serves the automotive, consumer, home hardware, industrial and sporting goods markets, but the health care sector has become an increasing focus, especially since the manufacturer has begun using its capabilities to make face shields.
The move to begin producing face shields started with directions and a template Dudney found online at a time when many organizations began sharing instructions for making equipment at home. From there, the company made some prototypes and brought them to Tennessee-based HCA Healthcare for feedback. It made some tweaks, adding an adjustable headband with Velcro and making the shields longer.
With its assembly expertise, Jagemann Stamping took a line used to produce parts for Ford Motor Co. and began using it to produce face shields. The move kept employees working rather than furloughed, but it was about something bigger for many workers, Dudney says.
“The driver for them to do that wasn’t about not being furloughed. These were folks that said, ‘Hey, my cousin is a nurse or my wife works in this hospital.’ It was neat that it did drive some personal connections for people that this equipment was going to help protect their friends, their family,” he says.
Amy Jagemann, marketing and customer service manager for Jagemann Stamping, says while the company hasn’t received as many orders as expected — many companies jumped into the market at the same time — making the shields has led to a new focus for the company.
Jagemann Stamping recently landed a component contract for a company that makes PPE air filters, and Jagemann says by the end of 2020, the health care sector could represent 10 percent of the company’s business.
“I’m so proud of our team down there (in Tennessee),” Jagemann says. “They rallied and did what needed to be done very quickly in order to meet this need.”
On the Web
These are but a few of the many stories of manufacturers that have stepped up to help in the fight against COVID-19. To view all of Insight’s COVID-19 coverage and see others’ stories, visit insightonbusiness.com/covid-19.
The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. added a PPE category to its Wisconsin Supplier Network to connect companies that produce equipment with organizations that need it. To find equipment or share your company’s PPE-making capabilities on the WSN, visit wisconsinsuppliernetwork.com.