Michigan companies become part of solution during COVID-19 pandemic

In the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the demand for personal protection equipment (PPE) skyrocketed. As health care and other frontline workers struggled to find the essential PPE to stay safe, Michigan’s manufacturing companies answered the call.

Building on Pure Michigan Business Connect (PMBC)’s success in providing supply chain sourcing solutions through its matchmaking program, in March 2020, PMBC pivoted to support Michigan’s critical COVID-19 response efforts.

In early April, the State of Michigan came to the MEDC and PMBC with what was initially thought to be an impossible request. The state needed to purchase 250,000 face shields within a six-week timeframe but didn’t have the connections with suppliers nor the resources to manage the purchasing process.

PMBC quickly responded by leveraging its existing relationships with Michigan’s supply base to find companies that would be able to meet this urgent need. They teamed up with one of their long-time partners Magna, a mobility technology company and the largest auto supplier in North America, who agreed to be an aggregator to facilitate the purchasing process; this included vetting suppliers, directly purchasing supply, as well as managing shipping and logistics – all within an extremely tight timeline.

“At Magna we are problem-solvers by nature,” said Jim Tobin, Magna executive vice president. “When the opportunity arose to use our purchasing and logistics expertise to help the state and more important help frontline workers, we jumped to the task.”

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PMBC aligned Magna with two suppliers – RCO Engineering in Roseville, Mich. and Barber Packaging in Bangor, Mich. Essential to the success of this project was the suppliers’ proactive approach. Concurrent with PMBC’s pivot to facilitating PPE supply, RCO Engineering and Barber Packaging had already worked to pivot their regular business operations to produce essential PPE for frontline workers. Both cumulatively agreed to supply all 250,000 face shields within a six-week timeframe.

After learning that the state needed the first 50,000 delivered within a week, Barber Packaging reallocated some of its inventory designated for an existing order to instead go towards meeting this deadline.

“Nick Anderson from PMBC called me on a Wednesday night and by 2 p.m. on Thursday we had the order for the first 150,000 face shields, and two business days later we delivered the first truckload of 50,000 to Magna,” said Luke Barber, president of Barber Packaging. “We felt called to stand in the gap to do our part to serve our neighbors, so we made it work.”

The suppliers had numerous challenges to overcome – including managing a tight timeline, retooling to produce greater volume, and finding materials at a time when supply was scarce due to high demand. For RCO Engineering and Barber Packaging, having access to a strong supplier network that could feed them either available inventory or raw materials to produce face shields was paramount. Plus, both companies took swift action to design a quality product that could be released into the market in short order.

“One of the things that was key is that we didn't hesitate to help,” said Jeff Simek, general manager of operations at RCO Engineering. “We used our speed to market and technology to bring our face shield to all the local hospitals to make sure they were happy with the product. We went through several renditions of the product before we finally released it for final production. We moved very, very quickly. We got the best feedback from the best hospitals in the area to come up with the final design.”

Following the success of the first purchase order, PMBC worked with Magna to issue a second purchase order from the state for an additional 750,000 face shields – bringing the total order of face shields to one million, all of which were expected to be delivered within the same six-week timeframe.

The impact from this face shield procurement project was overwhelming, keeping Michigan businesses open and people working during a global pandemic that dealt a significant blow to the state’s economy. Plus, the added revenue gave these companies the capital to invest in ramping up their production capacity to enable them to produce the high volumes of product necessary to fulfill such a large order.

“We were able to retain 85 percent of our staff during the entire shutdown to work on face shields,” said Barber. “It not only saved jobs, it allowed us to bring back staff from our remaining workforce while also hiring additional workers to expand our business.”
“When we brought up the face shield project, everyone in the company was aligned to it – it was a huge morale booster,” said Simek. “Even though it required a huge effort from everyone to continue to come to work, to get the tooling built, and to assemble the face shields - all during a pandemic, it uplifted the spirits of the entire company.”

The project also opened new opportunities for future work. For instance, it introduced RCO Engineering to a new industry. According to Simek, the company now has approximately 30 more customers from the medical industry than they had prior to COVID-19. As an approved supplier of Magna, Luke Barber says this will open new doors for ongoing non-PPE work. Also, Barber Packaging has launched a new Protective Products division as it makes face shields a permanent product offering.

“The first thing folks run into when they're making products is how do we find the demand and where is the demand coming from,” said Simek. “PMBC was able to look broadly across all the demand in the state and funnel it to one location and then, in turn, go find varying suppliers whether it be for masks or face shields. The PMBC team brought the aggregated demand forward and that allowed the supply chain to align with that aggregate demand.”

Every day, PMBC is helping to connect Michigan suppliers of goods and services with local, domestic and global buyers, based on demand and procurement needs. To learn more about this program, visit michiganbusiness.org/pmbc.

Photos courtesy of RCO Engineering and Studio One Creative