HOLLAND, Ohio—Rubber manufacturers certainly aren't immune to the impact COVID-19 is having on revenue and projects. So one Midwestern company is taking a proactive approach to keeping some of its staff busy and its lines humming during the pandemic, while also supporting the effort to fight the devastating virus.
Ottawa Rubber in Holland is manufacturing 600,000 silicone rubber face shield straps and 18,000 clear plastic face shields as part of an effort to replenish the state's stockpile of materials available to health care providers and other "critical" workers both now and in the future. As sales and tooling engineer for Ottawa Rubber, Jeff Bretz reached out to the Ohio Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network (Magnet) in response to the consortium's solicitation of essential manufactured items.
Magnet is a public/private advocacy organization that helps manufacturers and startups in Northeast Ohio with business operations and work force issues, through growth services, business consultation and other support. It has supported more than 2,000 state manufacturers over roughly three decades.
"It was a three-page list of items (Magnet needed made) and we found a couple of things that jumped out at us," Bretz said. "Among the list of top 10 items were clear, medical face shields."
Within three days, Ottawa Rubber received the go-ahead to start the process of manufacturing both items, which included initiation of the tooling and injection molding process. All of the straps and face shields were needed by April 30, and the manufacturer already had shipped its first production run of 33,000 straps by April 9. The ramp-up for the new project was "much faster than anything we have experienced recently," Bretz said, as the tooling took just three to five days after the order was approved.
Ottawa Rubber used a pair of 4-cavity die-cutting machines to help make the straps, machines that had been used to make foam gaskets for a heavy trucking OEM. Magnet delivered most of the materials used to make the face shields on April 16, while Ottawa Rubber sourced the silicone material. In all, 19 Ohio companies were involved in the project that saw up to 1 million face shields made for the Ohio Department of Health's emergency stockpile.
The company's professionals are used to completing jobs where parts are made from rubber materials ranging from silicone to EPDM, Bretz said. In this case the clear plastic shields took a little more time to prepare for, but the silicone was a "great fit." The manufacturer also is used to high-run projects, as it shipped out more than 10 million parts in 2019 alone.
Bretz said Ottawa had two conference calls a day with Magnet during April on the products it was manufacturing, looking for comprehensive updates on such details as products, packaging and transportation. The 40-plus year veteran in manufacturing said the process reminded him of the 1970s and early 1980s, when there was less paperwork required to get a product made quickly within the automotive industry.
"It's a bit like having some organized chaos right now, but for us that's a bit refreshing," he said.
It is refreshing, he said, as COVID-19 forced Ottawa Rubber to lay off most of its staff by late March as auto-related manufacturing dried up overnight. The manufacturer employs 15 professionals, and more than half of its manufacturing staff has been brought back to work on these projects, giving the company some revenue during a time when it otherwise may have gone dark in the short term.
"It is largely because of this project for the state of Ohio that we were able to keep several people employed," said Jennifer Ward, director of customer service and sales.
Ottawa Rubber's work is almost entirely within the automotive sector. It serves as a Tier 1 supplier to General Motors and Tier 2 to Nissan, Honda, Ford and others automotive OEMS. The company also manufactures components for the marine, heavy truck, printing and plumbing industries, Ward said.
For Bretz and the company's other executives, there are significant short- and long-term benefits to this effort. Bretz is a retired EMT and has relatives who work as EMTs and nurses, and most team members have friends and family who are on the front lines as essential workers.
"We're honored and committed to serve the need that we have in this community and throughout the state," Ward said. "It's great to know that we have a level of expertise and knowledge that can help make a difference. Right now our primary focus is fulfilling this order."
This experience has Ottawa Rubber already looking at options for making disposable face shields on its own, long after the pandemic eases, Bretz said. While no final decisions have been made, management is researching what would be required and how Magnet and other organizations might be able to support this effort, as well as how these shields could be sold.
Despite how quickly this order was turned around, Bretz doesn't see the automotive market changing its manufacturing requirements following the COVID-19 impact in the long term. However, he realizes that by showing a level of versatility and speed that's required with this project, Ottawa Rubber may be well-positioned to expand when normal work gets back to a more reliable level.
"(Customers) may see what we're capable of and ask if we can help with another project that they may not have asked about before," Bretz said. "There's value in being nimble."