Cadillac Products Inc., a film extruder and converter focused on the automotive market, pitched in early during the COVID-19 pandemic to make much-needed personal protective equipment.
Eight months later, PPE manufacturing is now a permanent part of the company's product lineup. The move diversifies the Troy, Mich.-based company's customer base, while also helping to establish a U.S. infrastructure to make medical gowns.
"Many of the PPE suppliers in the market today are importers," said Don Lowe, a spokesman for CPI. "I've heard some horror stories. Shipments not arriving, or coming damaged or torn. Our gowns are 100 percent domestic, from the resin all the way to the shipping container. We offer domestic customer service."
Because CPI does its own extrusion and has automated its fabrication process, "we are able to compete from a pricing standpoint, too," Lowe said.
"Our team recognized the dire needs for reliable, American-made PPE that brave frontline and essential workers had in the early stages of the pandemic and made it a mission to pull together to voluntarily engineer and distribute gowns to properly protect them," Lowe said.
The decision harkens back to the company's earliest days: Cadillac Products formed in 1942 to meet the urgent supply and manufacturing needs of World War II.
The PPE project started in March, when Robert Williams Jr., president and CEO of CPI's Cadillac Products Packaging unit, heard from his daughter, Maggie Williams, that Sinai-Grace Hospital in Detroit was running dangerously short on disposable medical gowns. Maggie Williams is a certified registered nurse anesthetist.
At first it was a volunteer effort fueled by donations from corporate partners. Dow Inc. donated PE resin; Universal Container Corp. in Ferndale, Mich., donated boxes; Stevens Custom Fabrication in Alpena, Mich., donated custom heat-seal bars; and Rupp Engineering in Fraser, Mich., worked on design and fabrication of tooling.
Cadillac Products' Paris, Ill., plant extruded 1.8-mil polyethylene film, which was shipped to CPI plants in Michigan, where volunteers cut the gown shapes and heat-sealed the sleeves. It was a labor-intensive process.
Within a month, CPI donated 50,000 gowns to area hospitals and nursing homes.
"Around the time that we used all of the donated material, the volunteer labor kind of dried up because everybody was kind of burned out. For example, my wife and I spent a couple night shifts making gowns," Lowe said.
But company officials took a closer look and decided that making PPE could be a long-term business opportunity.
"The donated materials and volunteer labor expired, but there was still a need for the gowns, And the company had a strategy to diversify its sales beyond the almost 100 percent focus on automotive. We decided that PPE was a good fit, because of our full vertical integration," Lowe said.
"So we decided to get into this business and stay there. And to that end, we have commissioned some semi-automated, high-tech equipment, all proprietary, all designed and built in-house, to improve our production.
Lowe called CPI "distinct in the automotive market when it comes to in-house design and production of manufacturing equipment."
When that equipment starts running next month, the company will be capable of making about 4.5 million gowns a year. CPI received financial assistance from a "Saving Business, Saving Lives" grant from Oakland County, Mich., to build the equipment.
"And the company is prepared to invest in multiple lines, as market demand requires," Lowe said.
PPE gowns are rated by their barrier properties, measured by their ability to withstand water spray under certain conditions. The company's current gowns meet the Level 3 standard. CPI plans to introduce more gowns, using various weights and grades of resin, to round out its product line.
"We're going to make a full complement of product. For us to go to market with just a Level 3 gown, it doesn't make sense," Lowe said. CPI will start delivering the full line in February. The company has also launched a new brand, ProTEC-USA, to market the PPE.
CPI has 220 employees and six plants. Making PPE helped the company keep lines running early in the pandemic, which helped CPI move fast once the automotive market recovered. The company makes protective plastic, exterior and interior acoustical parts and door water shields.
"The ability and the commitment to make PPE when automotive was down, we found a way for at least some of the workers to have work," Lowe said. "When automotive came back to life, not all of our competitors were there. So the company has made some sizeable awards in automotive. We're doing OK," he said.