From the rye whiskey maker who switched to hand sanitizer, to the leather baby shoe maker that pivoted to cotton face mask, some Lehigh Valley manufacturers deemed non-essential by Gov. Tom Wolf in March, converted production lines to keep workers employed, and discovered innovative product solutions.
It also got many thinking about moving their supply chains closer to home.
“As we continued to build up [our] the supply chain to meet that demand, it became apparent the [larger] supply chain was broken. Plastic bottles come from China, which was locked down in the middle of March,” said Chad Butters, founder and CEO Eight Oaks Farm Distillery in New Tripoli, which began making hand sanitizer in March.
Local water producers stepped up and donated empty bottles to Eight Oaks to meet their bottling supply gap for hand sanitizer for emergency responders and health care organizations. At the core of Eight Oaks mission was how to best serve the local community, he said. Without automation, Eight Oaks uses two production lines to hand bottle its hand sanitizer, using staggered shifts and maintaining social distancing requirements.
“The demand was a complete shock to me,” Butters said. “We had calls from hospitals, first responders, the US Post office and Department of Defense, among others. I had no idea there was this much demand.”
While Eight Oaks slowly returns to liquor production, its hand sanitizer operation remains strong.
Liquor sales are open for online orders and curbside pickup, as well as locations at farmers markets like Easton Public Market, Allentown Farmers Market and Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia.
Eight Oaks currently serves three market channels for hand sanitizer: Non-profit emergency management agencies in its seven surrounding counties, businesses that can buy in bulk, and online consumer sales through its website. For now, the company has no plans to stop producing its hand sanitizer.
“We are no longer looking at a calendar or a clock to make decisions,” Butters said. “This is all based off the reality on the ground…we’re taking incremental approaches based upon what we see today.”
Audrey Zimmerman is a fourth generation shoemaker in Orwigsburg, Schuylkill County. Founded in 1888, Zimmerman Shoes LLC, which is owned by KepnerScott Shoe Company, makes hand-sewn leather baby and children’s shoes. Now they make 100 percent cotton face masks, too.
The company was part of the non-essential shutdown order March 19, and wanted to find a way to keep working and contribute to the health and safety effort during Covid-19.p“This is the first time in 132 years our doors had been closed,” Zimmerman said.
Since skilled seamstresses were already employed – and many could work from home — Zimmerman and her head seamstress created patterns in answer to the call for personal protective equipment. “My dad and I went back to the drawing board,” she said. “We studied how to do N95 [masks], but that wasn’t an option.”
After receiving a waiver early in the pandemic, the company retooled the business to make cloth face masks.
Zimmerman discovered making face masks wasn’t much different than baby shoes because the team was able to create a design that would use their cutting machines and dies.
As demand skyrocketed they’ve created different fits and patterns, adding child-sized masks to the line-up.
“We began doing XL masks for men with beards and larger individuals, too,” she said.
The company donates PPE to health care services and offers consumer sales at kepnerscott.com.
Zimmerman sources fabric in Pennsylvania for its cotton face masks, and the threads are sourced in the United States.
Rethinking supply chains
According to Richard Hobbs, president and CEO of Manufacturers Resource Center in Fogelsville, there is significant talk about “nearshoring and reshoring” in the manufacturing sector since the Covid-19 outbreak.
“I think many manufacturers are thinking about how to source locally because no one likes to be held hostage – and many felt we were being held hostage by overseas supply chains,” he said.
Nearshoring is the process of bringing materials sourced overseas closer, while reshoring is the process of returning production sources back to a business’s country of origin.
“Reshoring supply chains is something a lot of people are thinking about –everyone I talk to is talking about it,” Hobbs said. “I can’t picture anyone being comfortable about it all coming from some foreign place…not only can you bring it back from international supply chains, but bring it back to a Pennsylvania supply chain.”
While the enthusiasm is there not everything can be made – or made competitively – in the commonwealth. Hobbs said product cost along with cost of ownership could become more important because “decisions do get made on the dollars.”
“It is a business and timing decision… and times are changing day-by-day,” Hobbs said.
Within the five counties in the Manufacturing Resource Center coverage footprint, about 85 percent have been declared essential and have been allowed to remain open, Hobbs said.
“Even [among] those that have stayed open, there are many stories that aren’t so good. A lot have had supply issues, due to delays or unavailability,” he said.
Others have had worker shortages, due to those caring for ill family members, or being unable to work staggered shifts.
Initially, Hobbs said, disarray in the response [for PPE and other products] and a lack of information frustrated and disappointed many producers who wanted to help but weren’t sure how.
About a month ago the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Call to Action Portal was launched by the state, creating a hub to help match up manufacturers with gear and equipment users, such as ventilators and parts for them. The portal stream-lined the process.
“There was a lot of confusion…companies were scrambling early on, and everyone was trying to find something to do. They wanted to help and just couldn’t get there,” he said.