Demand for the mobile computer workstations produced by Walker-based health care furniture manufacturer Altus Industries Inc. had already begun to spike as hospitals started setting up quarantine and triage areas in preparation for an influx of COVID-19 patients.
Then as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a stay-at-home executive order on March 23, Altus began getting requests for a product not yet in the company’s wheelhouse: mobile ventilator carts.
“We had a customer using one of our carts already as a ventilator cart — it was close enough,” Altus co-owner Eric Kahkonen told MiBiz.
The engineering team at Altus got to work using the company’s standard components to configure a cart designed to support ventilators, which mechanically “breathe” for patients unable to do so on their own. The COVID-19 virus attacks the lungs and, in severe cases, makes breathing difficult and requires medical ventilators.
After just a few days, the first ventilator carts were already in production. Altus has begun taking orders for ventilator carts as well as telemedicine carts, which allow doctors and health care professionals to use video conferencing to treat patients remotely — another increasing need as more states like Michigan order residents to shelter in place.
“Literally within the last five business days, we were able to reconfigure the necessary surface size and storage capability for what these customers were looking for, and it became an extension of what we already do,” Kahkonen said.
Altus has expanded its production capacity and is hiring additional assemblers to meet ongoing demand. The company has already increased its staff from 35 to 40 employees, and the entire team at Altus has “stepped up” to work long hours and weekends, according to Kahkonen.
Health care officials have repeatedly warned the public that the American hospital system will face a critical shortage of vital medical equipment in the face of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Altus is part of a growing group of regional manufacturers who are rapidly shifting their operations to fill the gaps.
Other companies that have joined the so-called “arsenal of health” include Ada-based Amway Corp., which rushed to produce hand sanitizer for Grand Rapids-based health system Spectrum Health. As well, a number of local distilleries such as Grand Rapids-based Long Road Distillers, Comstock Park-based Bier Distillery and Kalamazoo Stillhouse have pivoted to using their own alcohol to make sanitizer products.
Meanwhile, Petoskey Plastics Inc. is working with Grand Blanc-based McLaren Health Care to develop a prototype for a hospital isolation gown. Rockford-based footwear and apparel retailer Wolverine World Wide Inc. donated 25,000 protective masks to an unspecified local hospital group and started plans to convert one of its manufacturing facilities to produce protective masks for health care workers.
Last week, Ford Motor Co. also announced it is working with Minnesota-based 3M Co. and Chicago-based GE Healthcare to produce medical equipment and protective gear for health care workers.
“We have to be creative and scrappy,” Jim Baumbick, vice president of enterprise product line management at Ford, said on a call with the press last week.
Ford will work with 3M to increase the production of 3M’s current respiratory device, while the companies also work together to prototype and produce a new Powered Air-Purifying Respirator (PAPR) for health care workers.
The Michigan Manufacturers Association announced efforts driven by communication and coordination with Gov. Whitmer’s administration to locate more companies that can produce specific products to enhance the effectiveness of the state’s health care response to COVID-19.
“Our message to public officials is simple — allow manufacturers to help drive the solution,” John Walsh, president and CEO of the Michigan Manufacturers Association, said in a statement. “Governor Whitmer and her team recognize the critical nature and role manufacturing will have in moving the state forward in addressing this critical challenge.”
As part of Whitmer’s executive order to slow the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19, all businesses in the state — including manufacturers — are temporarily required to suspend activities that are not “necessary to sustain or protect life.” However, manufacturing operations deemed “critical” are exempt from the order.
“I firmly believe continued operation of manufacturing will be the key to successfully addressing the challenges facing this state and nation, both in terms of public health and safety as well as ensuring a strong economy,” Walsh said.
Earlier this month, the National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO) and the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) surveyed manufacturers nationwide for information on companies that may be able to help meet the country’s needs for personal protective equipment and medical supplies.
Companies that would be able and have the capacity to produce antimicrobial wipes, hazmat suits, head covers, privacy curtains, lab coats, equipment bags, face masks, surgical sponges, gowns and drapes, towels, temporary shelters or triage tents were a top priority.
The industry groups were working “as quickly as possible” with “high level officials within the Trump administration” and also on Capitol Hill to take a count of companies that would be able to make the needed products, according to a source within one of the organizations who spoke to MiBiz.
Potentially, manufacturers could be called on by the federal government to produce needed items within their facilities through the Defense Production Act of 1950. The law, which was signed by President Harry Truman amid concerns about supplies during the Korean War, has been invoked multiple times — including in response to hurricanes and terrorism.
The act authorizes the president to require private companies to prioritize government contracts and grants broad authority to the federal government with the goal of ensuring the private sector is producing enough supplies to meet the needs of a war effort or other nationwide emergency.
Earlier this month, President Trump, who referred to himself as a “wartime president,” said he would use the law’s powers “in case we need it.”
As the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. continues to rise, local manufacturers and suppliers continue to act in advance of an official call to action. More than 80 percent of the components in the ventilator carts produced by Altus are manufactured in the Midwest, according to Kahkonen.
“We are designated as critical manufacturing right now because we supply nothing but hospitals,” he said. “With that, we’re able to supply a letter to all of our vendors or suppliers asking for their support. Virtually all of them have said yes. They also gave us their commitment that they would prioritize our orders because they’re so specific to the cause of COVID-19.”
Altus expects to continue manufacturing the carts throughout the crisis, possibly adding a second shift to its already expanding workforce. The company has produced 3,000 additional carts in the last week and a half and is shipping the products nationwide. Locally, Altus has received rush orders from Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Beaumont Health in Royal Oak and Mercy Health in Muskegon, according to Kahkonen.
“As long as this needs to be supported, we’ll do the best we can to get the hospitals what they need,” he said.