Versare Solutions, a Minneapolis maker of cubicles and room dividers, has switched to making plexiglass screens for checkout lanes and reception areas after a request from a California pharmacy.
In another shift, Lightning Kayaks factory in Minneapolis is making face shields after requests from nurses.
They are just a few of the companies across the country that are pivoting during the coronavirus pandemic as demand for their products decreases and the need to protect front-line retail and health care workers is top of mind.
Versare got the call from a pharmacist in Los Angeles last week.
"So we made our first prototype last week on Wednesday and sold our first one on Friday," said Jeff Eckerle, Versare's business development vice president.
Since then, the 23-year-old company with a factory in northeast Minneapolis has sold dozens not only to that pharmacy but to others as well, and to a local title company where customers still need to sign mortgage documents in person.
Versare's new countertop screen is a tall, clear and foldable acrylic partition that forms a shield to help prevent the direct physical and airborne spread of germs among customers and cashiers, pharmacists and health care receptionists, Eckerle said.
The product, although different from the room dividers, cubicle partitions and sound panels normally made, is still in the factory's wheelhouse.
Such screens are increasingly being used at retailers such as Hy-Vee as one step to help retail workers. The sales team is in full tilt to sell the new products.
As the pandemic continues, other Minnesota manufacturers boosted production of personal protective equipment, including respirator and gown maker 3M Co. and disinfectant maker Ecolab.
Protolabs in Maple Plain, Ajax Metal Forming Solutions in Fridley, Wyoming Machine in Stacy and Twin City Die Castings in Minneapolis are all newly making components for companies or universities that manufacture ventilators and health care prototypes. This month, Minnetonka-based Canviva stopped making CBD oils and lotions in favor of hand sanitizer. It plans to ship 60,000 bottles to customers in 10 days.
Edina hockey-jersey factory Gemini Athletic Wear is sewing hospital-grade face masks with a Centers for Disease Control-specified fabric. Gemini just shipped 2,000 masks to the Life Spark nurses group, CDI Vascular Care, and is in talks with two area hospitals.
Kayak maker Stuart Lee in Minneapolis said he switched to face shields because he was getting e-mails from nurses after a friend and paddle customer in Australia suggested the change. Lee felt the move would fulfill a need and keep his seven Lightning Kayak employees working.
It was a quick turnaround, with whirlwind logistics, from finding suppliers for the special plastics needed to producing a prototype that met medical standards.
"We just started [full manufacturing] this morning. We have 25 now but have parts to make 10,000," Lee said Friday. "My heart goes out to the people saying that their nurses are crying knowing that I am sending them shields. How can I not do anything I can to help?"
He's sending the first set of masks to hospitals in Mississippi and Texas at no charge but very soon will need real orders to cover his costs.
Without paying customers, Lee said he'd have to close the factory in about two weeks.