April 08, 2020
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Critical need for protective gear throws Maine manufacturers a lifeline

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Ben Waxman dreaded what would come next after he saw a spate of coronavirus-related conference and convention cancellations a couple weeks ago.

The CEO and co-owner of American Roots, a Westbrook company that makes clothing and blankets with custom-order logos for customers, said he lost 50 percent of his projected revenue in a 48-hour period.

On Monday, he laid off 80 percent of his 27 workers, a move he hopes is temporary.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

“We are continuing to move forward by making personal protective equipment,” he said. “We’ll start as early as next week. We will bring back as many employees as we need to fulfill orders, with the goal of bringing back everyone.”

Waxman said his four-year-old company is changing its production lines to make protective plastic face shields for health care workers on the front lines of fighting the coronavirus. On Wednesday he entered into an agreement with Flowfold, a Gorham company that shifted recently from making lightweight outdoor gear out of trash to making the face shields. He also plans to start making gowns, scrubs and johnnies for hospitals.

“We had two choices: to continue with 20 percent of our workforce to keep the lights on and make money or to reinvent ourselves and repurpose the factory so we could bring our workers back,” he said.

[Supply shortages should be temporary during the coronavirus outbreak, experts say]

American Roots and Flowfold are among the Maine companies hurt by the business falloff during the coronavirus spread and shifting manufacturing to fill the critical shortages of personal protective equipment like the shield.

“We were poised for our biggest year yet,” said James Morin, chief operating officer and co-owner of 10-year-old Flowfold, about the company’s outdoor and travel products. “It’s disappointing, but other people are in worse shape. And with this pivot in manufacturing we are going to be able to keep fully staffed and potentially add more staff.”

Last March the company teamed up with L.L. Bean on a co-branded Bean boot made of recycled sail cloth. The company has eight employees.

The plastic shields resemble welders’ masks but are much lighter and transparent. They cover the health care worker’s face to protect them during prolonged face-to-face contact with potentially infectious patients. They are used with N95 or cotton masks.

The first order of 1,000 Face Shields is scheduled to be shipped to MaineHealth Thursday, said James Morin, Flowfold’s chief operating officer and co-owner.

[Coronavirus could overwhelm Maine hospitals. Social distancing can save beds and lives.]

He said the second order of 2,000 shields is scheduled to ship to Northern Light Health Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor early next week. The company sells to hospitals and other health professionals. It plans to ship products outside the state and has orders from Massachusetts and Texas, he said.

Morin said the company is making hundreds of masks a day now, but is looking for ways to scale up to thousands a day. Part of the challenge is that parts of the shield need to be hand sewn.

“The demand for the shields has been overwhelming,” he said.

He would not comment on the price for the shields except to say it is higher than the $2 to $5 for masks that hospitals import from overseas. He said Flowfold is trying to figure out ways to get the price down.

Devin McNeill, Flowfold’s cofounder, said the company has a flexible, technologically advanced factory where the production lines could be quickly changed. The factory includes a large, material-cutting machine that usually prepares pieces of fabric for Flowfold’s bags and wallets.

McNeill said the company also is keeping its workers safe. Sewing machines have been moved at least 6 feet apart and intensive cleaning schedules are in place. Doors to the business are effectively locked to keep the workspace as sterile as possible.

[What you should know about social distancing, self-quarantine and self-isolation]

He said customers still can order Flowfold products through the company’s website. Those are being sold from existing inventory.

For its part, Brunswick-based STARC Systems is refocusing its manufacturing of temporary modular walls on isolation systems for health care facilities. The company’s products normally are used to seal off dusty construction areas within businesses or hospitals.

“We can isolate wings of hospitals and divide rooms in half with our modular walls,” said Tim Hebert, founder and chairman of STARC. “The walls can be easily cleaned, sanitized and reused.”

The company plans to double its panel output and existing manufacturing space. Hebert said it expects to add 15 to 20 employees to its current roster of 65.

STARC also is looking to partner with manufacturers in Maine that may have had to lay off some employees and that could pick up some of the wall production, said CEO and President Chris Vickers. It is working with the Maine Technology Institute and the Manufacturers Association of Maine to find partners.

“Time is our biggest concern,” said Vickers. “Healthcare facilities need isolation rooms now, not two months from now.”

Watch: What you need to know about handwashing during coronavirus


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