In Warroad, a few miles south of Canada, window and door maker Marvin is now making a specialized ventilator box for use in ICUs and surgery after working with the University of Minnesota to develop it.
Polaris, at its Roseau plant 25 minutes away, is helping out.
The ventilator-box project started a few weeks ago when a robotics high school teacher in Warroad connected Marvin with M Health physician Hai-Thien Phu and Chris Hogan, a mechanical engineer professor at the University of Minnesota.
“The U had a prototype, but they didn’t know how [to] make this in volume and how you can make it easy to manufacture and lightweight,” said Christine Marvin, vice president of design for the window and door company.
This week, after receiving emergency clearance from the Food and Drug Administration, production began.
It is one example of how Minnesota companies are pivoting to meet personalized protective equipment (PPE) needs and saving jobs in the process.
Alexandria Industries has now increased its medical manufacturing by 58%, and Summit Medical has met ambitious goals for selling a face shield it developed from open-source material.
Wyoming Machine in Stacy and Ajax Metal Forming in Fridley are newly making ventilator parts.
And, as of last week, Maple Plain-based Protolabs shipped 7.5 million 3-D-printed nasal swabs, molded ventilator parts and COVID-19 test kit cases to medical-device manufacturers, Harvard and Cornell university research labs and to medical centers battling the coronavirus pandemic.
At Marvin, the U worked with the company to develop a box that protects health care workers in intensive-care units and surgeries from any saliva spray from ventilated patients.
Marvin brought in Polaris to help because, as window makers, the company did not have experience or expertise to bend polycarbonate plastic.
“This opportunity came up, and we said let us use our skills to see what we can do,” said Randy Larson, the Polaris research-and-development supervisor in Roseau. “We sort of stumbled over each other to help out.”
Four Polaris workers used press brakes to bend the thick plastic, as the two companies came up with prototypes.
“This is really cool of them,” said Hogan from the U.“Hundreds of health care workers will be helped by this because its reusable.”
Marvin and Polaris plan to make and donate dozens to the U. They already donated a few to Life Care Medical Center in Roseau to help its coronavirus nursing staff.
“At the beginning of the year, if you had asked me if we were going to be making medical devices, most people would have looked at us like we were crazy,” said Paul Marvin, the company’s CEO. “But now, we are finding a way to do what needs to be done.”
The Marvin company has done it before. During World War II, Marvin stopped making windows to can peas for Campbell’s Soup and to make ammunition boxes for soldiers.
And the ventilator boxes aren’t the only thing the company has started making. Since March, Marvin has teamed with Lake of the Woods Brewing Co. to make 1,200 bottles of hand sanitizer and worked with the local high school robotics team to make face shields for Life Care hospital.
Last month, it converted its visitors center in Warroad into a drive-through COVID-19 testing site staffed by Sanford Medical Center nurses.
The changes came at a critical time. When the pandemic hit the United States, “there was an immediate decline in business — life falling off a cliff,” Paul Marvin said.
By late April, the company began furloughing some of its 6,000 workers for up to two weeks across 14 plants.
Marvin spent “hundreds of thousands” on coronavirus leave policies, its new virus testing site and on masks, face shields and disinfectants for workers. It set up community billboards and printed factory posters and floor stickers with health alerts and social-distancing reminders for itself and other businesses.
“It’s what you do when you are in a small town,” Paul Marvin said, adding that big companies in other small Minnesota towns are doing the same.
Summit, a medical device manufacturer in St. Paul, over eight weeks developed and started manufacturing FDA-compliant face shields, using open-source materials from Makerspace at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The company’s goal is to deliver more than 1 million face shields, and hit its first milestone in the effort late last month.
The company said the effort saved jobs as demand for Summit’s elective surgical products declined with restrictions on medical procedures in states trying to preserve hospital space for the surge of COVID-19 patients.
“Our team’s innovative design and dedication to meet the urgent demand to protect health care workers, as well as employees returning to the workplace has been outstanding,” said Kevin McIntosh, president of Summit Medical. “Every staff member has been involved in production and is working overtime, including weekends, to make it possible to deliver face shields with quality and speed.”
As more factories open, Summit officials said they see a secondary market for the face shields that will keep demand high.
In a typical year, Alexandria Industries derives a slice of its sales by making parts for medical device companies.
But as COVID-19 cases grew in the U.S., so did the need for I.V. poles, ambulance gurneys and hospital bed frames made by the 54-year-old metal extrusion and milling company in central Minnesota.
The company also makes parts that go in ICU ventilators that have been in short supply, portable oxygen respirators and the lifts that raise and lower hospital beds.
“We’ve been supporting medical original equipment makers for 20-plus years and never have we seen a spike like we have seen today,” said Steve Schabel, chief sales and marketing officer at Alexandria Industries. “There was a mad rush. We woke up one day and our entire world or business changed overnight with COVID.”
Medical demand offset declines from vehicle and industrial customers, he said.
With the pivot to medical products, Alexandria Industries retained all 575 of its workers, Schabel said. The company spent $65,000 on face masks, face shields, hand sanitizers and factory and dock disinfectants to help keep workers safe.
Includes reporting by staff writer Joe Carlson.