The design and fabrication operation at Hatch Exhibits headquarters in Elkridge was set up to make trade show exhibits.
Now, the same tools that could create a custom holiday display for an Under Armour brand house are being used to make thousands of face masks and gowns for hospital workers that are facing a dire shortage of protective equipment amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
With all eyes on keeping the healthcare system from being overwhelmed so staff can keep saving lives, it’s galvanizing businesses to turn their tools toward the collective need.
The shift came earlier in March, after co-owners Tracy and Chris McCormick saw the events where they had clients with booths and exhibits canceling. First a few canceled, then, with social distancing measures, the entire slate they had planned for spring and summer were off the table.
“We had one really big event that we hoped was going to get us through this, and it canceled on Thursday,” Chris McCormick said of March 19. By Friday, they had to make the tough decision to furlough the company’s 23 employees.
While making breakfast the next morning, Chris McCormick saw a press conference where Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York was outlining the needs for protective shields, masks and gowns.
McCormick thought, “I’ve got a garment machine. I can make a gown.” So he got in touch with a couple other folks from the shop, and they set to work prototyping a face shield and a gown that they could produce on the tools they already had.
“At the end of Sunday, we had a production-ready face shield,” McCormick said. The shield they created allowed the plastic to be replaceable, so the plastic can be taken out, sterilized and reused. Using CNC routers, they would be able to manufacture thousands in a day.
After working through designs to reduce material costs of the gown, they were ready to go. So they put the word out on social media.
“Within hours, large healthcare systems were getting ahold of us,” he said. Orders came in numbers like 2,000 and 10,000.
So a week after furloughs were handed down, on Thursday, they had 2,300 face shields produced for the cause. One order is asking for 100,000 items, which they’ll fulfill if he can find the material.
It also had an economic impact. When he spoke to Technical.ly on Friday, McCormick said he was able to hire back about a dozen members of the staff, and were seeking opportunity to hire back the rest this week. It won’t replace the millions of dollars that was lost with cancellations, but it can help to employ folks as it contributes to the greater cause.
The equipment that’s being made also has specialized parts. In Baltimore city’s 1100 Wicomico, DiPole Materials has a custom manufacturing operation that electrospins nanofibers.
Amid the crisis, there’s been lots of talk about the need for N95 respirator masks which reduce a healthcare worker’s exposure to airborne elements that may carry the disease via filtering it out. It’s applying that equipment to make the filters that are key components of the masks. Last week, DiPole cofounder Scott Gaboury said the company was working on prototypes and testing.
The filters, made of nanofibers, are being made in rolls at DiPole’s operation inside Early Charm Ventures’ recently expanded production space. Pick one up, and it looks like a very thin sheet of paper, but it’s a key part of the masks.
DiPole Materials typically does custom manufacturing that fill specialized needs, but to do its part the company is converting to higher-volume runs and tapping the community to stand up a manufacturing chain that can get more masks made.
“We’re using our whole network of partners to be able to source materials, get testing done and ultimately get the materials out,” Gaboury said.
The all-hands-on-deck mode to get PPE is spurring all kinds of organizations to use what they have. Whiskey distilleries like Port Covington’s Sagamore Spirit are making hand sanitizer, local theatre companies are sewing masks, and the Open Works makerspace to mobilize to produce equipment for the effort. Businesses are donating masks they have stocked, such as T. Rowe Price’s donation of 135,000 N95 masks. And volunteers are gathering to assemble equipment in warehouses.
“It’s absolutely doable,” McCormick said. “You’ve just got to look at the things on hand and see how it can be applied.”