Amid a pandemic, manufacturers pivot to new or expanded business lines

Chicago-area companies answer the call to provide masks, beds and other products in high demand.

SHARE Amid a pandemic, manufacturers pivot to new or expanded business lines
Workers at Petra & Holum on Chicago’s Northwest Side assemble masks.

Workers at Petra & Holum on Chicago’s Northwest Side assemble masks.

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Manufacturers throughout the Chicago area, facing an abrupt halt to commerce amid attempts to control the coronavirus, had an identity crisis. With “nonessential” businesses ordered closed, what could they do to keep people working? And could they help save lives?

At places such as Richards-Wilcox in Aurora and Petra & Holum on the city’s Northwest Side, managers had a eureka moment.

Robert McMurtry, president of Richards-Wilcox, convened staff the weekend after Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s shutdown order. They decided their factory, which makes specialized storage cabinets, could be reconfigured to make beds for emergency care centers. The beds are going into McCormick Place now.

“We realized it’s all steel fabricating. That’s what we do,” McMurtry said. A fast sourcing of mattresses and refashioning of core components led to the creation of the Quik-Bed, with a design that meets federal standards for disaster responses and costs about $1,000 apiece. It’s shipped disassembled for cost and efficiency, but can be put together in 90 seconds. “We timed it,” he said.

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A Quik-Bed from Richards-Wilcox in Aurora, some of which are being used at McCormick Place.

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McMurtry said it kept 150 people working even as other business was dropping 80%. “It turned out to be more complicated than I imagined, but we got it done. Our people are excited to be involved in this,” he said. Production has reached 5,000 beds per week.

Petra & Holum also took advantage of a core competency. They know how to sew there. With its core business of high-end packaging and protective pouches “nonessential,” the company “needed to figure out to stay relevant,” said Michael Quintos, vice president of sales and marketing.

“I was really touched seeing all the frontline workers who go out there and don’t have the personal protection equipment,” he said. So with a donation from the law firm Edelson PC, the company switched to masks, which they have provided to Chicago police and local hospitals.

It’s at 4,000 masks per day, and there’s a new sideline: face shields, with a goal of 3,000 per day, Quintos said. The activity has allowed the 87-year-old company to keep on board almost half of a normal staff of 45, and others could come back if the company can get money under the Payroll Protection Program, he said.

Will this be a permanent business line? “Hard to say. I don’t know how long we’ll be at this. My prediction is six months. We’re looking at a machine that makes surgical masks,” Quintos said.

The coronavirus’ overall effect on industries is a mixed bag, said Mark Denzler, president of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association. Companies that can serve health care benefit, while food and chemical manufacturers are seeing upticks, but huge employers such as auto and aerospace are stopped cold, he said.

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Mark Denzler, president of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association

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Denzler noted 600 Illinois companies have registered with the Essential Equipment Task Force, the IMA and iBIO, an association of life sciences businesses, formed at Pritzker’s request. It connects manufacturers of emergency products with key suppliers.

Other companies in the area already had a piece of the health care market and have seen business boom, compensating for a drop off elsewhere. An example is Geneva-based Smith & Richardson, which supplies ventilator manufacturers as part of an overall business in machine parts.

“Our volumes now are maybe 10 times what we see in a year,” President Rich Hoster said. “Our customers say keep on producing. We’re running six days a week, and I’m really reluctant to take it to seven. We need Sundays for a deep cleaning, and I don’t want to wear my people out.”

One of its customers is Vyaire Medical, based in north suburban Mettawa, where it employs 250 at its corporate headquarters. It’s a leading ventilator manufacturer facing intense demand, although spokesman Cheston Turbyfill said the impact has registered mostly at factories in California.

Vyaire announced Thursday it has received a $407 million contract from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to produce 22,000 ventilators by the end of June.

“We are receiving unprecedented demand for our ventilation equipment — and this is obviously creating unprecedented demand on the supply chain. We are working through these issues with the aim to put forth a schedule of delivery that meets the requests for orders we’ve received,” Turbyfill said.

“Regarding shipments, I can tell you that we are prioritizing the bedside first and foremost. We’re prioritizing where the need is the greatest and shipping direct to end user customers.”

Denzler cited other cases of companies that have responded to the pandemic. W Diamond Group in Des Plaines has switched to masks from making suits for Hart Schaffner Marx. LCR Hallcrest in Glenview is filling all the orders it can for health care thermometers, including a strip applied to the forehead that changes color to register a fever.

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