How does a company that makes wallets and backpacks switch, on a dime, to turning out hundreds of thousands of hospital-grade face shields?
“We've been preparing for this for 10 years,” explains Devin McNeill, CEO and co-founder of the Maine-based company Flowfold. Agility and willingness to take risks are part of the company’s DNA, he says, and helped make possible its lightning pivot when COVID-19 hit.
Back in 2010 McNeill met Charley Friedman at the University of Maine. The two millennials, both Maine natives, started out peddling wallets made with recycled sailcloth in their spare time, adding new products as their scrappy startup grew.
These days, though, McNeill is overseeing Flowfold’s high-stakes turn to industrial-scale protective personal equipment (PPE) production.
Our company was founded on the idea of sustainability: finding materials that were headed to the landfill and using them to make light, durable gear. Our very first products — and still our best-selling travel and outdoor gear — were wallets made from recycled sailcloth.
We started out selling our wallets to friends and family and tourists in downtown Portland arriving off cruise ships. Slowly we matured as an organization, scaling up from a craft, Etsy, Grommet-type of company (we sold fewer than 2,000 units during our first year in business) to a company with sales, here and abroad, topping 150,000 units in 2019.
In December 2018, we moved into our new headquarters — a building we bought in Gorham, 10 minutes outside Portland. It was our first time having a loading dock and being on the ground floor instead of a cheaper basement or second floor. Our first time having a place we owned, with space to grow and bring in new equipment. We were scaling up when the coronavirus hit.
In early March, as the pandemic took hold, we knew there would be a massive decline in consumer spending. Orders from our retail partners evaporated — big ones like L.L. Bean and REI, as well as mom-and-pop shops. Our international distributors cancelled orders as well.
So we looked at what the market and our community needed. We saw that hospitals faced major shortages of personal protective equipment — nationwide and at healthcare facilities here in Maine. We decided manufacturing PPE was something we wanted to do, can do, have to do, both to help our community and to enable our employees to keep their salaries and health insurance.
On March 15 we reached out to the state’s largest healthcare organization, MaineHealth, saying, “We may have the capacity to help; what do you need?” They gave us a catalog of about 25 items. Face shields caught our eye. The clear film used for face shields? We use that in our products — like for the card windows in our wallets, where you slip a driver’s license or credit card.
We had recently purchased a computerized cutting machine, which is perfect for cutting film into thousands of face shields very accurately, while also reducing the amount of waste material.
And we had other advantages in this crisis. Our products are made in the U.S. Although our manufacturing costs are higher, we can adapt very quickly to what our customers want. Having everything under one roof at our new headquarters allowed us to sketch, draw, field test and produce a product — all in concert, quickly and efficiently.
It’s mind-boggling — and not without its challenges.
For our first prototype, we sewed the prototype pretty poorly, using tape to hold it together. (Eventually we invested in a bartack machine, which can sew thick materials together.) But our sample was a good enough representation. We brought it to MaineHealth, saying, “If we can make this in a way that’s acceptable, is this something you would want?”
Their infectious-disease team had a look, and from there things moved really fast. MaineHealth approved our prototype on March 20; a week later it ordered a thousand. Within three weeks we’d shipped face shields to all major Maine hospitals and had an order from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. By the end of April, we had orders for over half a million shields, with a large chunk going to the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention (Maine CDC).
As we’ve increased production, we’ve been able to make shields more efficiently and cut out waste. That’s important when raw materials are relatively pricey, as they are these days, and when you’re operating, as we are, on the thinnest of margins. We’ve been able to pass on savings to our customers, to make it easier on hospitals and businesses that need PPE.
We suspended production of our regular products and switched to making face shields full-time. To the core Flowfold team of seven employees, we’ve added about 75 people across the state producing face shields for us on a contract basis. It’s mind-boggling – and not without its challenges.
To gear up for production we completely reorganized our manufacturing facility. Per federal guidelines, we spaced out the sewing machines and other equipment at least six feet apart. The factory is probably 2,500 square feet of open space, and offices and storage areas. We came up with twice-daily cleaning routines, to keep high-touch areas disinfected.
Then we effectively locked down our warehouse; no one goes in or out unless they’re a Flowfold employee. We took factory sterility to an extreme, knowing that if one person got sick, everyone was likely to, and we’d have to shut down for a while.
Equipment is running 16 to 18 hours a day to keep up with demand.
We brought in portable shipping containers and put them out back. One is for incoming deliveries (raw materials, packages, mail) and one is for outgoing items. This way, there’s never person-to-person handoff between Flowfold employees and delivery folks.
We also brought in mobile office trailers — like the ones you see at construction sites — to make room for additional workers who are assembling face shields. Since we own our building, we didn’t have to clear this with a landlord; we just set up the trailers and put people to work.
Now there are three — to allow employees to work at a safe distance from one another. And to reduce the number of people going in and out of our main building, where equipment is running 16 to 18 hours a day to keep up with demand.
Lining up the materials we need for our face shields — that’s not been simple. Early on, each day presented a new bottleneck, something that kept us up at night wondering, “Are we going to run out?” Double-sided tape. Clear film. Elastic. PPE uses so many elastic bands — on booties, aprons, cloth masks, face shields. We were competing with other manufacturers who also needed elastic to make PPE, as well as for their regular products.
The clear film is used for kitesurfing and windsurfing sails. It’s very light yet designed for extreme circumstances: 60-mile-per-hour winds, UV radiation, seawater. We use it all the time. We reached out to our suppliers and asked what they had.
It’s been a bit surreal.
We had to figure out who would be our primary supplier, our backup and our backup for the backup. Not only is most hospital PPE made overseas, but most of the raw materials to make it come from overseas.
So we had to get creative about raw materials -- like for the foam strip that goes across the person’s forehead. We kept hunting for a foam that’s easy for us to work with and comfortable to wear. At one point we hit so many hurdles we were prepared to cut up memory-foam mattresses if we had to. Luckily it didn’t come to that.
Our operation kicked up a notch when we secured the Maine CDC contract to supply face shields for the state into the foreseeable future. We’ve also seen an increase in orders from small businesses planning to reopen as restrictions are lifted. We reached out to other Maine manufacturers to help us meet the demand, and they responded enthusiastically.
Many of the shields we provide to Maine CDC are now assembled and shipped by local manufacturers — mostly in the apparel or textile-goods industries — working for us as sub-contractors. L.L. Bean has long been a partner of ours. We send them boxes of clear film, elastic, foam; they make that into face shields and ship them nationwide.
Thanks to these partnerships and our team, we’ve gone from making 1,000 face shields a week to roughly 50,000 a week and counting, for Maine and beyond. Our production has reached the point where we can now sell our face shields to the public. It’s been a bit surreal.
These past months have been challenging for our team, adapting and learning on the fly. We all work long hours and are acutely aware of staying safe and sanitized.
As a parent of a 2-year-old and a newborn, I worry about keeping them healthy, but also about how these times will affect them. They can’t do things we would normally do; they can’t socialize with friends or extended family. I’m just thankful for the time I spend with them and look forward to sunnier, calmer days.
We’re playing our part, and that feels good.
Who knows what the coming year will bring? It’s all so uncertain. Right now Flowfold is dedicated almost exclusively to producing face shields — and we could still be doing that next year, if the pandemic persists and PPE remains so elusive. Or we could pivot back, slowly but surely, to making wallets and travel gear, as the economy and country recover.
What I can say for sure is that I’m proud of our work. I’m proud that we figured out a way to stay afloat and support our employees, while also supporting a larger circle of folks — subcontractors, suppliers, frontline workers, other businesses that need this gear to restart their own operations. We’re playing our part, and that feels good.
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