It was a common refrain early in the coronavirus pandemic: Widespread shortages of protective equipment would help push manufacturing of those critical goods back to the U.S.
Those discussion are happening, but as the experience of one Ohio auto parts supplier that jumped into making plastic medical gowns shows, the reality of reshoring can be more complicated.
Sensical Inc., which cuts automotive fabrics and compression molds vehicle parts, changed direction in the pandemic when its traditional business softened: It added 190 temporary employees and equipment to make gowns.
By June, the Solon, Ohio-based company was making 80,000 polyethylene medical gowns a day.
The company said it wanted to help and felt its experience with fabrics gave it a leg up on plastic gown making.
Vice President Trip Roney said the company saw images of health care workers reusing gowns—or in worst-case situations posting social media pictures of themselves wearing garbage bags as makeshift gowns—and hoped that filling that need would also turn its U.S.-made PPE into a permanent new business.
Roney said hospitals do say they want more U.S.-made protective gear, but so far, the shift toward more domestic sourcing doesn't seem to be happening in a big way.
"I spoke with the chief procurement officer of a major hospital here and he says, 'I will never allow my organization or my people to be in that situation again, and we will allocate 15-20 percent of our annual spend towards domestically made product,'" Roney said. "The challenge is, that's not actually happening right now."
Roney said he's sympathetic to the situation hospitals face. They've run through their budgets for the year and now that the global supply chains they're usually tapped into are coming back, they're trying to catch a breath.
But he and others who are pushing for more U.S. sourcing of PPE say there's a risk that without stronger commitments to purchase domestically, an opportunity could be missed.
"What I see is not many states putting their money where their mouth is at this point, probably because they just spent a ton of money trying to make sure that everybody was safe through COVID," said Ethan Karp, CEO of the Cleveland-based Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network, who echoed Roney's call for more focus from health care groups and governments in the future.
Karp's group has worked with Sensical and dozens of other companies during the pandemic to try to build up domestic manufacturing of gowns as well as plastic face shields, cotton masks and other PPE,
The reshoring aspect seems to be working for face masks. Karp said two companies, with financial help from the state, acquired equipment from Germany to automate, and they are competitive against overseas mask makers. He believes the same potential is there with gowns.
"Gowns to me are a huge opportunity," Karp said, if companies can get enough long-term orders to justify the costs of automation.