"We are very proud and excited to be able to produce these critically needed swab products in the nation's fight against the COVID-19 pandemic," President Tom Thompson said in an Oct. 19 news release.
At the onset of the pandemic, there were two major suppliers of the specialized swabs in the world: Puritan Medical Products in Guilford, Maine, and Copan Diagnostics Inc. in Brescia, Italy. Puritan's swabs are made by Teel Plastics.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials were concerned that shortages of swabs could limit the health care sector's ability to test people for COVID-19. So the government and the medical supply chain have been scrambling to boost swab capacity, including molded, extruded and 3D printed sticks.
"Our employees have been at the forefront of this battle since March and have produced over 500 million swab sticks to date, and this added capacity will allow us to increase production to provide the country with the needed swab sticks for use in COVID-19 test kits," Thompson said.
"This new capacity will require over 50 additional employees to be hired at Teel, and we are hiring now for these positions."
Teel was founded in 1951 and was primarily an extruder until a few years ago. That's when existing customers looking to consolidate their vendor base, including Puritan, asked Teel to look into adding molding technologies.
Teel bought its first injection molding machine in 2017, and has been steadily adding more in the past few years.
Teel said the expansion is needed to support increased production rate of test swabs for COVID-19 test kits and to ensure sufficient domestic swab manufacturing capacity and supply for potential future pandemics.
Herrild said the new equipment will fill Teel's Baraboo headquarters plant, and that the company will consider additional expansion in the future.
The new equipment supports an effort headed by the Pentagon's Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell, formerly called the Joint Acquisition Task Force. The cell is contracted by the Department of Air Force Acquisition Organization and funded through the Health Care Enhancement Act to support domestic manufacturing of critical medical resources.
Injection molding is a rapidly growing part of Teel's business. Back in June, Teel had a total of eight Arburg injection presses, including one 350-ton, one 110-ton and six 165-ton machines. Half of those machines were molding swab sticks for COVID-19 testing, which are intricate, difficult-to-mold parts. Typically the machines have a 64-cavity mold running on a four-second cycle.
In addition to test swabs, Teel is making other products used in the fight against COVID-19. These include components for breathing devices that create humidified air for patients and oral hygiene kits that prevent secondary infections in patients on respirators.
Teel also makes plastic film cores used in the production of IV bags, medication bags and pharmaceutical packaging, which are used in a clean room environment instead of cardboard cores, to cut down on dust and debris.
Earlier this year, Teel was recapitalized by Morgenthaler Private Equity Partners, an investment firm with offices in Cleveland and Boston. MPE partnered with the Smith family, which has owned Teel for more than 20 years, and senior managers led by Thompson, to help pursue growth opportunities.
Teel ranks No. 56 in Plastics News' current listing of pipe, profile and tubing extruders with estimated sales of $64 million. The company also won Plastics News' 2019 Excellence Award for Industry and Public Service.