Seeing the early effects of coronavirus on manufacturing in China gave Evco Plastics President Dale Evans enough insight to make some crucial decisions as the COVID-19 pandemic gained a toehold in the United States.
“Well, if you go back to when this started this year … we have a facility in China, … so they got hit by the COVID stuff pretty quick. And, so, when it hit us here in the U.S., we were somewhat prepared for what to expect,” Evans said. Evco also operates in Mexico.
“And really, we had three goals: Keep our people safe, keep them employed and try to at least break even … we’re a privately held company, making money’s important,” he said.
One of the unexpected outcomes of pursuing these three goals is that, a custom injection molder, began to design, manufacture and ship a product of its own in the personal protection equipment (PPE) category — a PP headband with a PET face shield that is available through Amazon.
To achieve the goals he set for his company, Evans first strove to ensure his workers’ physical safety. “We wanted to get the focus on our people … so you know the temperature checks we did, cleaning up everything … and then the work-at-home stuff,” he said.
“A lot of our engineering staff and our sales staff, the people that can work from home, we've been encouraging that to happen, but even so a lot of people come in to work a couple days a week.”
So far, it has worked. As far as we're aware of, no one has picked up COVID-19 within the confines of” in the U.S., Evans said. “No one 's done that, so we've been able to keep it outside of our [facility] by having people be honest with us, we’ve quarantined people, we do all the things that you can. We encourage either a mask or a face shield in our facilities.”
To tackle his second goal, Evans had to rely on the flexibility of his workforce. In the early days of the pandemic, customer Spectrum Solutions, which had been using Evco to produce components for DNA testing kits, quickly developed and got FDA approval for a saliva test for COVID-19. The company pivoted and hadproduce testing kits
“We quickly went from 24/5 to 24/7, to doubling what we were doing then and then doubling again, so right now we have 18 machines running COVID-19-related components 24/7,” he said.
“And at the same time that was happening, we had to come up with people, and so a lot of our clients were deemed non-essential, so we basically transferred people from one facility to another. We have three plants in DeForest, Wis. … within a mile of each other, so we were able to do that pretty easily and keep people employed.
“Our people have been so cooperative. We’ve had people switch shifts and offer to help out and do this [or] move to a weekend shift from a normal shift to do what they can do. I can't say enough about our people and how flexible and cooperative they have been,” Evans said.
At about the same time, Evco was creating designs for a company that wanted to sell face shields. That company chose one design, leaving Evco with another design that it had created and Evans preferred.
“I’m a design guy … and some of the things you do if you design something, you design it so it’s … reusable, recyclable and comfortable to wear,” he said.
The face shield needed to stand up to sterilization, sochose to mold the headband from PP, which can be sterilized in an autoclave. For the shield itself, it decided on PET, which can be cleaned with alcohol. It has an anti-fog coating.
doesn’t make the PET shields, “but there's plenty of thermoformers in the area here that we were working with, and we worked with a couple of them to make shields,” Evans said. “We were able to leverage our friendship with those guys … and you know the PET and the polypropylene are all recyclable, so, at the end of life, you know, it can be recycled from the waste stream.”
The headband is lightweight and adjustable. “And you go lightweight, lightweight equates to thinner wall, thinner walls equate to speed of production, and so our costs, we were significantly less than most people out there at the time we brought it out.
“We spent about a month on the design, sourcing feedback from medical professionals and regular consumers. But when the design was finalized, we went from the first cut of steel to production in 8 days. Our tool shop turned around the two-cavity mold in record time,” Evans said.
So, early in the U.S. experience of the pandemic, Evco had designed a new product, sourced its components and — with machinery previously used by its now-nonessential clients sitting idle — began producing it. With demand for PPE skyrocketing across the country,turned to Amazon.com to sell it. It should have been as easy as one-click ordering, right?
Not exactly, said Anna Bartz, Evco’s director of communications.
“Mid- to end of March … right away, we saw a need for it, and we wanted to be able to help out and pivot our manufacturing process to be able to support this product, because we thought it was important to do our part in the fight against the virus. And then, I don't think we were live and selling actual product on Amazon until about mid-June,” Bartz said.
Bartz, who said her first job out of college was with Amazon, found the process a challenge.
“You know, Amazon is such a giant company with unlimited resources, and they have dozens upon dozens of different programs and ways for manufacturers to sell product on their platform; however, not all of these areas speak the same language,” she said. “So, getting things actually up and listed — especially during a worldwide pandemic — has been quite an interesting journey, to say the least.
“Amazon wants to work with manufacturers of the product. They don't necessarily want to work with the secondary sellers or people that are just intermediaries between manufacturers and selling on Amazon.
“Overseas manufacturers had a leg up on what the market needed and what the market would respond to on the consumer side. And, so, when the pandemic started to snowball stateside, domestic manufacturers were kind of left to the wayside a little bit.
“But it's just finding the right person to talk to to get these products listed, and that was the challenge. So it was quite a long period of time before we were whitelisted,” Bartz said.
Although it was a long process to be recognized by Amazon, Bartz said being on the platform offers advantages. “You have access to all of those analytics because Amazon again wants to work directly with these manufacturers and brand owners of these products. So now we have access to search terms that people are looking for. … I can tell you right now the term ‘face shield’ today is the 36th-most-searched item on Amazon.”
Now that the relationship with Amazon has been solidified,packages face shield kits, then ships pallets of them to a central Amazon fulfillment center. From there, Amazon distributes the units to dozens of its fulfillment centers around the country to send to customers who order them online.
has offered the headbands for the face shields in multiple colors, and just placed an order for child-sized face shields that will work with the headbands it produces. It plans to offer the face shields in a larger variety of package sizes, for workplaces or educational settings.
Bartz said there are other possibilities for the future. “We've been keeping our eye on the market, and there are a couple other new things that we could dip our toe into, but do we need to? Maybe not.” One possibility includes an LSR mask bracket. “It looks like something that Bane in Batman would wear on his face, it’s kind of like a little guard that sits under your mask, so that you can breathe a little bit easier, or if you're wearing lipstick or something it doesn't smudge all over the front of the mask.”
Evans said it’s been about 30 years since Evco last made and marketed its own products. “So, this going back into the direct market stuff has been quite a change and something we weren’t prepared to do very well, but Anna took that under her wing and has seen some nice some growth with that, so we'll keep on doing it.
“How much it grows — who knows when this is all going to stop and when you don't need this anymore?” Evans asked. “Things are still up in the air, you know. It really would be frustrating to have the perfect product design right when no one needs it anymore. That’s the problem.”
But he said Evco’s primary mission is still producing for its clients. “We define ourselves as a contract manufacturer, so basically we make things for other people. … We see ourselves as the manufacturing arm for the people that … know that market.”
And, as the clients who were initially designated as nonessential have come back, Evco is seeing the need to grow and adapt yet again.
Evans said that at the time of K 2019, the company had about 200 injection molding machines among all of its facilities globally. But since then, “we’ve probably purchased 20 machines this year.
“When you walk around our facilities, you will see several different brands as we procure machines for particular work in mind. Given we are a custom molder, the machines and specific models we purchase vary by application: What works for a high-speed job maybe is not ideal for a large-part application, etc.,” Evans said.
“If at all possible, we try to keep it to two brands per plant, but ‘try’ is the important word here. We often rotate around machines throughout our global footprint depending on the specific needs of customers at any given time. Most of our new presses are Engel and JSW with press sizes ranging from 130 ton to 250 ton. We brought in a large 2,500- and a 3,500-ton Engel this year, as well, but they are mostly used for non-medical work,” he said.
He said that Evco has generally had good luck finding machines during this period of expansion. “In the first two quarters of the year, we found it easy to find availability for the exact right models we needed, but, as the year went on, availability started to become an issue. However, some of the presses we compromised on ended up being solid solutions for what we needed, and we're likely going to purchase more of the alternative options in the future.”
At the same time, Evco has sold some larger machines that weren’t as active to free up floor space for those smaller machines, which can work well for medical products.
“We try to re-size our production based on what we can produce right now,” Evans said.
Another piece of the manufacturing puzzle for Evco is automation. “We’ve got 220 molding machines, you must have 250 robots … because there's some machine there are not any on, there’s others that have four or five, you know, putting things together, so we tend to automate whenever we can.”
As an example, Evans said that, when Evco shifted workers to handle the new COVID test kits, they had people assembling the kits by hand. Automating these tasks is a way of increasing repeatability and quality assurance, as well as freeing up workers for other tasks.
“Instead of … throwing three people at a production cell, we want to get down to one person at a production cell,” he said. And to achieve this, Evco is investing in more automation. “I just added it up at almost $2 million worth of automation on order right now that I'm trying to get involved. … And, so, the automation is the next step that has to get in there to be able to do this volume of work and still do it profitably.”
Evans said Evco is working on a cell for the COVID-19 test kits. “The cell in question will assemble the five molded parts, fill the assembly with test fluid, seal it, weight it to confirm the degree of fill, apply a bar-code label, load the test kits into a thermoformed tray, and finish the completed kit with a Tyvek seal,” he said.
The cell uses an Omron PLC with a user-interface touch panel. “The servomotors and drives are also Omron components, used for controlling the conveyors and the lift system for de-nesting the thermoformed trays. The robots within the cell are Fanuc brand, one six-axis robot, and the other is a SCARA robot,” Evans said. “The base and robot guarding is from Robotunits. The pneumatic system components are from SMC. The conveyors we are using in this system are from Dorner, a local Milwaukee company. For most of the automation cells we build going forward, we will be trying to standardize the PLC or controller to Omron, and when a robot is needed, Fanuc.”
Looking ahead, Evans is optimistic.
“The thing that I tell everybody, everybody says manufacturing’s dying in the U.S. and all this kind of stuff. There are more things being manufactured in the U.S. than ever before. [It] just takes less people to do it,” Evans said. “That's the issue, and we see ourselves still growing, but you don't grow with just plants and machines and things, you grow with the actions of people. So every business is the people business, every business revolves around people and making good decisions about products we make, the equipment we use — you gotta have the people that do that. …The thing [is] that we just accomplish a whole lot more than we ever did before with less people. … You gotta do that to stay competitive in this world environment we live in.”
David Tillett, associate editor