by Bob Zaruta, President/CEO, NWIRC
Howard Industries in Erie County designed and is manufacturing SGuards (sneeze guards)

Throughout history, Pennsylvania manufacturers have consistently driven our nation to triumph over its adversaries. During World War I, PA firms produced more than half of the firepower supplied to the U.S. Army. When the nation entered World War II, Pennsylvania manufacturers once again answered the call by providing one-third of the country’s steel used to build tanks, battleships and other war components.

Today, Pennsylvania is the ninth (9th) largest state in terms of U.S. Department of Defense contracts with more than $13.4 billion of goods and services provided annually. Recent times have presented Pennsylvania and our nation with a new nemesis and an entirely different type of battle. The COVID-19 pandemic caught our world, our state and our communities off-guard as we confronted a threat that was unknown, invisible and deadly. While healthcare providers and others served as front-line fighters in this unprecedented war, the critical role of Pennsylvania’s manufacturers should also be recognized. As the nation’s sixth (6th) largest state in terms of medical device employment, the nation looked to Pennsylvania’s industrial base for leadership amidst this crisis. True to form, our manufacturing community did not disappoint. Throughout the pandemic, more than 8,200 Pennsylvania manufacturers and their 370,000 employees remained operational and continued to produce goods that our domestic economy and citizens needed to remain viable. Our food, beverage, paper, plastic packaging and chemical plants kept products on store shelves while our advanced electronics, HVAC equipment, medical device, aerospace parts, machine parts and forging facilities continued to produce goods essential to our everyday lives. Many small and mid-sized manufacturers quickly transitioned to produce medical supplies and products needed for the fight against COVID-19.

Early on, distilleries across the country, including in northwestern PA, began answering the call by producing hand sanitizer. As with other manufacturing companies dealing with broken supply chains, many initially had difficulties getting supplies to produce. These companies then began providing products to the healthcare frontline and other businesses when their regular suppliers came up empty. Erie Distillery began making sanitizer at the request of the Erie County Health Department and Conneaut Cellars Winery & Distillery made product for donating to area nursing homes. Additional new manufacturers of hand sanitizer across the region include Five & 20 Spirits and Brewing, Cart/Horse Distillery, MLH Distillery, Grumpy Goat Distillery, Ramhorn Distillery, and CJ Spirits in Kane PA, and Luminary Distilling– just to name a few.

Tamarack Packaging in Crawford County jumped into action by making several hundred masks a day for the Meadville Medical Center with their commercial sewing machines. Brookville Glove in Jefferson County also pivoted to making face masks.In Venango County, Matric Group switched their 3D printers typically used for modeling and production to print face shields that are donated to first responders. Plastics manufacturers in Erie County also began producing face shields, including Port Erie Plastics and Munot Plastics. At Phoenix Sintered in Elk County, an employee made face shields on his 3-D printer for other company employees which was noted on their social media as “the culture of developing great solutions is in the DNA of Phoenix Sintered Metals.” Howard Industries designed and is manufacturing SGuards (sneeze guards) to allow companies to protect their employees and customers. Viking Plastics in Corry PA, who already had relationships with Ford, was asked by the company to produce a part for ventilators. This is just the very tip of the iceberg of how manufacturing companies in our region have responded and are too numerous for mentioning them all. While many manufacturers modified their processes and production lines to contribute to the fight against COVID-19, others already in the medical device and equipment supply chain increased their output to meet demand.

Now, as our manufacturers transition to full operations, it is time to ensure that this sector has the resources it needs to fully recover and thrive. A strong commitment from Pennsylvania legislators will undoubtedly yield a high return. Since 1988, the Pennsylvania Industrial Resource Centers (IRCs) have served Pennsylvania’s small and mid-sized manufacturers with the services and expertise they require to meet the COVID-19 challenge. Lean manufacturing systems, ISO certifications, new product development processes, supply chain risk mitigation protocols, I.T. infrastructure, cybersecurity frameworks and disaster preparedness & recovery plans have all been provided to manufacturers through their local IRCs. NWIRC has helped lead the way. By remaining open as an essential business throughout the past three months, NWIRC staff worked remotely to continue conversations with manufacturers to provide resources, information, and offer free interactive webinars. Our Strategic Business Advisors provided consultative services to numerous local manufacturers, helping them find new suppliers, implement improved safety measures, locate CDC-approved protective equipment and cleansers, and integrate telework and remote technologies into their operations. And, we collaborated with regional organizations to develop the COVID-19 Recovery Program which I mentioned in last month’s article. The time to further bolster the strength, resiliency and long-term viability of our regional manufacturers is now and NWIRC is here to assist.

Side Note: Special thanks to our sister-IRC center, Northeastern PA Industrial Resource Center (NEPIRC), for creating a special message on behalf of the PA IRC Network. It’s a powerful short video titled, PA Manufacturing Rising to the Challenge. Take a moment to view and share by viewing it here.