Move fast and help people: How area companies are changing their operations to fight the coronavirus

Moterey Mills and Eder Flag are partnering to make respirator masks.
Moterey Mills and Eder Flag are partnering to make respirator masks.

Last updated on March 27th, 2020 at 11:54 am

It seems like a long time ago, but it was just on March 12 that Jalem Getz walked into Wantable’s offices in Walker’s Point and told around 70 employees they would start working from home immediately.

He then went to the online clothing retailer’s fulfillment center and told employees they would be splitting into two shifts and making other changes to increase social distancing in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

By Friday evening, when multiple states had issued shelter-in-place orders and it seemed possible a similar action might come to Wisconsin, Getz and his team shifted their focus away from women’s clothes and to a new question: “What can we do to help?”

“We are just a retailer of women’s apparel, but the type of retail that we have is very unique,” said Getz, founder of Wantable. “We’re in the boomerang business. We send a box out to a customer and 95% of those boxes come back.”

Wantable’s business model involves stylists picking seven items out and sending them to customers, who then get five days to try the clothes on and send back what they don’t like.

The model gives Wantable expertise in logistics and processing incoming materials. So as images showed up on the news of people volunteering to sew facemasks for health care workers, Wantable had an answer to its question of how to help.

Getz and his team decided to crowdsource masks from their customers. Providing them with instructions and a prepaid shipping label to send the mask to the company. Wantable will collect the masks, inspect them for quality and then distribute them to hospitals. The team started working on the details of the Sew Good initiative on Saturday, finalized them by late Monday and launched the program Tuesday.

Helping people first

Wantable’s story shares a lot in common with other stories that have emerged in recent days of companies doing their part to contribute to the fight against the coronavirus. Those traits include acting quickly, relying on existing strengths and generally not prioritizing the financial interest of the company.

“My factory doesn’t want to hear this, but we don’t even know the true cost of making these at this point,” said Dan Sinykin, president of Janesville-based Monterey Mills.

Sinykin’s company has partnered with Eder Flag in Oak Creek to make respirator masks for hospitals and law enforcement.

It started last week when a hospital called Monterey Mills looking for available masks. The company is the largest knitter of its kind in North America and regularly works with air filtration and insulation materials and got to work on designing a mask it could produce from its materials.

Sinykin said Eder Flag was brought in as a local company with an excellent cut and sew operation that wanted to help. Eder and Monterey Mills teams worked together over the weekend to refine the design. Sinykin said he talked with one hospital that offered to place a purchase order before the companies made production volumes if the masks passed initial testing.

A dozen masks were delivered to the hospital by Sunday night, they were tested on Monday and the order came in.

“It is unbelievable. I’ve never experienced what we experienced in the last 72 hours,” Sinykin said. “It’s been exciting. It’s been all hands on deck. I’m proud of every one of my employees and all the employees of Eder, how much time they’ve put in over the weekend, at night. It’s amazing to see when an emergency happens how people respond and this has been an experience I’ll never forget.”

He said the companies are putting their initial focus on hospitals and law enforcement but the number of requests that have come in over just 48 hours is still more than they would ideally want to manage. The plan is to bring on additional cut and sew operations in the coming days to ramp up production.

“The majority of our energy is being put on respirator mask fabric,” Sinykin said.

He noted one of the challenges is finding materials like elastic. He put a note on social media about his needs on Monday afternoon and by noon Tuesday had heard from a dozen people and companies with potential sources for him. Sinykin even had a call set up with the father of one of his daughter’s sorority sisters who knew a potential supplier.

A boost from social media

Social media is part of what brought Bill Berrien of Pindel Global Precision in New Berlin to making ventilator parts. He saw a post on LinkedIn from the owner of MarkZero Prototypes in Connecticut offering to make parts at cost until the coronavirus pandemic is over. Berrien volunteered that Pindel would do the same.

By Friday, the New Berlin maker of machined parts had an emergency order with a delivery date this Friday.

The only problem was Pindel does not typically make ventilator parts.

But Berrien, chief executive officer of Pindel, noted that the parts his company does make typically involve a variety of materials and tight tolerances. He described it as “complexity at volume” and said he didn’t expect anything too out of the ordinary for Pindel.

“That’s the nature of our business,” Berrien said. “We are a contract manufacturer so we are pivoting to new parts all the time.”

The biggest challenge Pindel faced was finding the right material for the parts, but the company found a source that could deliver by Tuesday at the earliest. Pindel’s team worked through the weekend to program equipment for machining and found a vendor in Illinois to quickly turn around the preparation of the materials. The company also worked with Green Bay Anodizing to cut the turnaround time for treatment after the parts were machined, allowing them to hopefully arrive in California on time.

“The only thing really different here was the pace and the timeline needed for turnaround,” Berrien said.

A former Navy SEAL, Berrien said the effort has been similar to the work of special operations teams.

“Nicely, it’s not a centrally coordinated effort,” he said. “Everyone knows where the goal is and they’ve got to be navigating through their own decision points and obstacles to get there.”

While Berrien was discussing the effort with BizTimes, a member of his team emailed to say the company would be receiving another purchase order for two additional part numbers with 7,000 parts each. Again, the turnaround time was a week.

Berrien said it is validating to see the team he and Pindel have put together execute the way it has over the last several days.

“It’s not unique to us. It reflects what advanced manufacturing is today,” he said.

Cutting through silos

Even as some companies pivot and adjust to meet new needs, others are simply continuing to serve customers they already had in critical industries.

That’s the case for Whitewater-based Universal Electronics Inc., which has been a supplier to Surfacide, a Waukesha manufacturer of the Helios system. The system uses three laser guided UV-C light emitters to sterilize hard-to-reach areas in hospitals and other settings. It cuts one- to two-hour tasks down to 12 or 13 minutes.

Predictably, demand for the Helios system is increasing and UEI is looking at the prospect of needing to supply 20-times the volume to Surfacide, said Ray Cottrell, vice president of sales and marketing at UEI.

While the higher volume isn’t an out of the ordinary amount for UEI, which makes subassemblies and printed circuit boards, ramping up does present a challenge.

“It’s not an anomaly, by any stretch, it’s making sure we understand where all the pinch points are at as we move forward,” Cottrell said.

The first hurdle to overcome is the supply chain disruptions that have hit as the virus has spread around the world.

“If you don’t have the components and material to build a product, you’re kind of stuck,” Cottrell said.

He said UEI is also dedicating space in its plants to produce Surfacide components and designing them to scale up as demand increases. The company also assigned a special project manager tasked with addressing any issues, figuring out what work needs to be expedited and generally cutting through silos internally and with the customer.

“We’re not changing our business model as much as we’re adapting to a circumstance that’s critical in nature,” Cottrell said.

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Arthur Thomas
Arthur covers manufacturing for BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.