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Spirit of innovation keeps some manufacturers humming

The Western New York Energy plant near Medina. It adjusted on the fly to provide ethanol for hand sanitizer. That kind of spirit of innovation pervaded the response of the region's manufacturing sector to the COVID crisis. (Photo by Dick Moss)

The Western New York Energy plant near Medina. It adjusted on the fly to provide ethanol for hand sanitizer. That kind of spirit of innovation pervaded the response of the region’s manufacturing sector to the COVID crisis. (Photo by Dick Moss)

Right now all eyes are on health care and the COVID-19 pandemic. But behind the scenes, area manufacturers are staying open and remaining relevant by making connections, working together and helping others in need.

A recent case in point: Rochester Institute of Technology works with Xerox Holdings Corp. to design masks that are then manufactured by Hickey Freeman — thanks to a connection made by local union representatives — and sent to area hospitals, where they are used by staff to keep themselves and their patients safer during the pandemic.

It was quite an opportunity, said Mary Fromm, Xerox’s vice president of global manufacturing.

“I had seen Hickey Freeman was starting to make some masks with Rochester General Hospital, and the same day I was in touch with our union business agent — we use the Rochester Regional Joint Board division of the Workers United union —and he represents Hickey Freeman. I called him that Saturday and by Sunday we had a project planned where the guy who developed the mask design was dropping off the prototype,” Fromm recalled. “It was a serendipitous thing. I would never have expected to have all this connection happen this quickly.”

Xerox’s Webster campus also is involved in ventilator production through a collaboration with California-based Vortran Medical Technology. And as an essential business, Xerox continues to manufacture consumable items and spare parts in Webster.

In March, Rochester Midland Corp. teamed with Iron Smoke Distillery to produce ethanol-based hand sanitizer and supply it to at-risk frontline staff, hospitals and first responders. By the end of the month, more than 9,000 gallons of hand sanitizer had been produced, and company officials estimated 15,000 gallons would be produced each week for communities where supply is short.

“The supply chain for these materials has been incredibly volatile over the last couple of weeks, and the innovative thinking on Iron Smoke Distillery’s part to convert their distilling process to manufacture hand sanitizer is to be commended,” said RMC Co-CEO Katherine Lindahl. “Based on a handshake and mutual interest in moving this to maximum production quickly but safely, our companies have collaborated incredibly well. How we are showing up together matters for our community, team members and customers.”

In Orleans County, Western New York Energy has adapted operations to provide distilleries, technology companies and global personal care companies with ethanol to produce hand sanitizer in response to the pandemic.

“In conjunction with New York’s corn growers, Western New York Energy is committed to assisting distillers and companies of any size to manufacture hand sanitizer in the fight against the COVID pandemic,” said WNYE President and CEO Tim Winters. “We could not do any of this without support from the farmers, our partners for the past 13 years.”

Rochester Optical Manufacturing in recent weeks designed a reusable spectacle-mounted PPE full face shield that would work with most personal eyeglasses, said company CEO Patrick Ho. Although not a replacement for N95 face masks, the face shield offers an extra barrier. Rochester Optical has made the face shield available to consumers and businesses on its website.

Similarly, J.N. White Associates Inc. has launched a splatter protecting face shield to help fight the spread of the virus, while Eastman Kodak Co. entered an agreement with the state of New York to supply isopropyl alcohol to aid in the production of “NYS Clean” hand sanitizer.

To support the state’s production of hand sanitizer — available free to residents and distributed to impacted communities as well as state agencies like schools and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — Kodak in March began delivering tanker loads of the chemical from its Eastman Business Park facility.

Like many other local manufacturers, Unither Manufacturing LLC continues to operate at full capacity. In fact, the Henrietta manufacturer is actively seeking to fill 25 positions. The company has more than 300 employees, a 50 percent expansion from a year ago, said Dan Harvey, director of human resources for the Rochester division.

“We’re an essential workplace so our product lines range from cough syrup through epileptic medicine to crone’s disease to sterile eye drops and inhalation products, which are new to us,” Harvey said. “We’re working very hard to get new products online and to continue keeping our supplies to the marketplace very full.”

Unither is a clean room facility, meaning that the company did not need to make changes like other manufacturers did in order to comply with social distancing rules in place statewide. But it is not without its challenges either. Unither’s supply chain has been affected to some degree by the global pandemic.

“Luckily through FDA regulations a lot of the pharmaceutical companies have redundant supply chains, so we’ve been doing very well to date,” Harvey said. “But it’s getting more and more challenging as the truly global supply chain has been restricted.”

Unither is not the only local manufacturer in growth mode. inTEST Corp., the parent company of Rochester’s Ambrell Corp., said last month that it planned to expand its applications laboratory capabilities to California, while Newark’s IEC Electronics planned to increase its workforce by nearly 50 as demand increases as a result of COVID-19.

Elsewhere, Transcat Inc., a Rochester provider of accredited calibration, repair, inspection and lab instrument services, has been deemed an essential business and said its calibration labs, distribution center and support offices remain fully operational during the coronavirus pandemic.

Optimax Systems Inc. also has been classified as an essential business, so the company is continuing its manufacturing operations as much as possible, said Production Manager Josh Dennie.

“We have removed anybody from the building that can work remotely and they’re working from home,” Dennie said. “And what we’ve done is we’ve split everybody else up into different areas and social distancing as much as we possibly can.”

As a three-shift operation, Optimax is able to spread its staffers out more and has opened the facility up to work on Saturday and Sunday to enable workers to social distance even more. But, like Unither, the company’s supply chain has been affected by the pandemic.

“All of our direct supplies for directly making the optics that we make haven’t really been affected tremendously, but we’ve been really challenged with all sorts of paper products, gloves that we use, cleaning supplies, that sort of thing,” Dennie acknowledged. “But most of our supplies for the direct manufacture have been pretty readily available.”

A March survey from the Institute for Supply Management showed that nearly three-quarters of companies were experiencing some sort of supply chain disruptions due to COVID-19. Of those, one in six companies reported adjusting revenue targets downward an average of 5.6 percent due to the pandemic.

“The story the data tells is that companies are faced with a lengthy recovery to normal operations in the wake of the virus outbreak,” said ISM CEO Thomas Derry. “For a majority of U.S. businesses, lead times have doubled, and that shortage is compounded by the shortage of air and ocean freight options to move product to the United States — even if they can get orders filled.”

Batavia’s Graham Corp. in March temporarily closed its factory, sending more than 300 workers home. But in a surprising move, the heat transfer equipment manufacturer chose to continue paying its staffers throughout the shutdown. Company officials said that bodes well for Graham because it allows the company to hold onto its talent pool.

Area manufacturers have had to deal with a number of issues surrounding COVID-19, but Xerox’s Fromm said one thing is consistent: the strength and innovation of Rochester companies.

“We have such a culture of innovation. So many companies were birthed here and went on to amazing runs of great product innovation. It’s been amazing to see now with this incredible need in the world for innovative products to come to market quickly that we can build on the strengths of all these different pillars,” Fromm said. “We can all just start to spark ideas together and find amazing ways to help the world. Rochester epitomizes that amazing strength and spirit of innovation.”

[email protected] / 585-653-4021 / @Velvet_Spicer



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