As the medical industry reaches out for help as it responds to the coronavirus outbreak, manufacturers are stepping outside their normal industries to supply needed items.
General Motors Co. has been the highest profile company so far, with CEO Mary Barra saying in a March 20 news release that the Detroit automaker will work with Ventec Life Systems to leverage GM's logistics, purchasing and manufacturing expertise to increase production of Ventec's ventilators.
But across the globe, hundreds of smaller companies are also participating.
In Wisconsin, 3D printers, PET sheet manufacturers and packaging companies are joining forces to turn out face shields badly needed in the University of Wisconsin health system.
Nicole Bookhout, director of sales and marketing for rollstock maker Ex-Tech Plastics Inc. of Richmond, Ill., first heard of the shortage of face shields when she visited her doctor for a COVID-19 test after being exposed during a curling tournament.
The shields cover the faces of doctors and other medical providers to help protect them from exposure. Typically designed for single use, staff at Bookhout's doctor's office were cleaning and reusing shields because they couldn't access any new ones.
"We extrude PET rollstock, so they looked like a pretty basic thing," Bookhout said. "I thought, 'I wonder who makes these,' and so I started looking into it."
Since Bookhout was already self-quarantined, she reached out to thermoformers who might be able to trim the shields for doctors' use.
Within about 10 minutes, she heard about a project coordinated by UW Madison's Makerspace group who were looking for more partners to ramp up production quickly.
Makerspace, working with designers from Madison-based Delve and Midwest Prototyping LLC of Blue Mounds, Wis., had created a mask that could be produced easily using an open-source, downloadable 3D printed part and clear plastic.
The team needed access to the clear plastic, which is where Ex-Tech and its customers, including thermoformer Plastic Ingenuity of Cross Plains, Wis., came in. Plastic Ingenuity was already in communication with UW, as were other thermoformers even as Ex-Tech was reaching out.
"This isn't conventional, but we'll do what we can," said Bookhout, who is recovering at home after receiving a positive test for COVID-19 on March 20.
Ex-Tech is donating about 2,000 pounds of sheet currently and trying to determine what else it can provide. The company is also "slammed" by demand from its normal customers in food packaging who are being pushed to increase production, Bookhout said.
The program can be replicated beyond Wisconsin.
Makerspace will share information with companies interested in starting a similar program.
"Ideally, yes, you'd be making it in a clean room, but when I talked to my doctor about it, they said that they're having to wipe them down between visits, and this is something that's supposed to be one-time use," Bookhout said.