With protective equipment supply chains slammed by demand from the COVID-19 pandemic, thermoforming plants have an opportunity to fill shortages by quickly transitioning production lines.
Custom medical and electronics packaging thermoformer Prent Corp. turned around production lines to make plastic face shields for health care workers in just two days, Joseph Pregont, vice president of corporate sales at Prent, told Plastics News.
After starting work on a face shield prototype design on March 22, Pregont said the Janesville, Wis.-based company began production on March 24 and donated its first 20,000 units to health care facilities near its plants across the United States.
"We had the machines and feedback from health officials all on the first day we decided to start working on it," Pregont said. "By day two we were manufacturing the product to ship out to hospitals and police and fire departments locally."
Prent's sister company, sheet extrusion firm Goex Corp., had the appropriate materials on hand and was able to supply the thermoformer immediately, Pregont said.
"Our transition to production was so quick because we didn't have to make any type of machine buys, we could run it all on the existing machines that we have," he said.
Prent finished more than 30,000 face shields in its first week of production, and it plans to ramp up even further.
"We have started using higher cavitation tooling and our foam supplier has had time ramp up their supply," Pregont said.
Prent doesn't plan to continue making the face shields after immediate demand has died down and regular vendors are able to supply health care facilities, he said.
About 95 percent of Prent's products are in the medical device field, Pregont said, so the company has seen demand for its products go up during the pandemic.
"As long as there's a demand, we're going to continue to supply," he said. "If there's other demands like this due to the pandemic we'll certainly take a look to see what we can do to help. … If we're able to create a new design for the face shield that's an improvement because we can produce it faster or cheaper, we'll consider that."
Prent's employees are also using the face shields from the new production lines to protect them from contracting the virus.
"Thankfully our lines are long enough that they're not too congested with our regular processes," Pregont said.
Prent is not alone. Plastics firms across the country are turning out new products, with thermoformers making quick adjustments.
Salt Lake City-based packaging manufacturer Premier Plastics Inc. designed a face shield it expects will go into production the week of April 6.
"We've created an innovative design that's very quick to make and assemble, and very inexpensive," President Jim Holbrook said. "We can have throughput on the daily basis in the thousands."
He said some large organizations have already started placing multimillion-unit orders for the shields.
Premier's client base includes medical test-kit companies that are "running out of product across the board," Holbrook said. "As we ramp up and start looking at these multimillion-piece orders, we will have to increase head count, but we don't know what that number will be at this time."
The company has already added a third shift to meet overall demand, he said.
Holbrook said fewer employees come at once to run a shift than normal, increasing their safety from the virus at work.
Employees on the company's production lines also wear face masks and will begin wearing Premier face shields as soon as they are available, he said.
"It's really the safety of our employees and clients that's No. 1," Holbrook said. "All the product is secondary to the team."
Premier also plans to donate 100,000 units to its local medical community, which is "waiting with bated breath" for the company to deliver the shields, Holbrook said.
"It's not something we'll do forever because it's not our core business," he said. "But being able to help and be fortunate enough to be working and healthy, it's just one way Premier can give back to the community right now."
Premier said it also has the capability to make face masks and is considering how it would start a production line for the product.