Partnerships Create Rapid Innovation During COVID-19 Crisis

Like their counterparts around the country, Vermont manufacturers found themselves facing a long list of challenges as Coronavirus-related shutdowns pushed clients and suppliers into dramatically different new modes of operation last year.

Many turned to new product and service offerings, leveraging their capabilities in creative ways to offset the many and varied challenges that presented themselves, not to mention capture sales.

Dorset, Vermont-based JK Adams
, a manufacturer of cutting and serving boards, baking tools, and other wood products, virtually shut down in March, along with many other enterprises across the state and around the country. As the company’s management team began speaking from their respective home offices, though, there was an urgent sense that their equipment and staff could provide valuable manufacturing services…and put some of their people back to work.

Although the company’s expertise lay in woodworking, they discovered their five CNC routers and other equipment could help with the manufacture of plastic products—in particular, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

“Our sample maker, product designer, and other employees jumped right in,” says JK Adams’ Creative Director, Sean Osborne. “We ordered sample materials and retooled the facility to be sure we could produce something suitable for medical facilities.”

Working with the University of Vermont Medical Center’s surgical staff, JK Adams employees got to work developing products for delivery to first responders in short order.

“This was a completely new effort for us,” Osborne adds. “Our CNC operators are highly skilled, but a new material is always a curve ball.”  The JK Adams team rose to the challenge. Before long they had overcome the technical hurdles, and today the facility is machining on two shifts with the capacity to make 20,000 full face shields each and every week—enough to enable the company to even respond to RFPs from other states.

“We really just tried our best to pivot and provide an opportunity for employees to put their skills to use,” Osborne says. “They were asking how they could help, so we made something happen.”

A few miles north in Rutland, a partnership between UVM and VMEC created a new opportunity for Kalow Technologies. Realizing that ventilator equipment presented a critical bottleneck for care in areas hardest hit by Covid-19, the two organizations discussed the potential for manufacturing the units right here in the Green Mountain State.

Given their existing relationship with VMEC, Kalow’s Manufacturing Manager Nick Flanders says the company was a natural fit when it was time to identify manufacturers to kickstart the product. This particular effort, however—dubbed the “Vermontilator”—presented a chance to create new relationships while also leveraging old ones.

In the prototype phase, Kalow manufactured the sheet metal housing, assembled the enclosures, and provided some powder coating and electrical work. The plan also called for Kalow to offer additional support in the production phase (the project is currently awaiting FDA Emergency Use Authorization).

The electromechanical assembly, engineering, and fabrication operations played directly to Kalow’s strengths; what’s more, it has opened new application opportunities for the company.

“This was a good learning experience for everyone involved,” says Kalow’s Compliance Manager, Eric Lapp. “It was an opportunity to draw on training and support VMEC had given us in the past for a new application.”

Lapp adds that not only did VMEC’s matchmaking build the partnerships needed to get the project rolling, but the collaboration—facilitated by VMEC Professional Manufacturing and Business Growth Advisor Phil Chadderdon—enabled things to keep their momentum despite the challenges of remote working.

State Director Linda Rossi says Vermont Small Business Development Center (VtSBDC) realized early on in the crisis that the best way to help Vermont business was through technology; in particular, the Coronavirus Roadmap page created for the organization’s website.

“We created a series of flowcharts intended to make it easy for businesses to weigh their options in light of the crisis. This decision tree-based methodology helped visitors assess their business, weigh the need to take on loans or not, and make other moves using their own business numbers.”

Simply put, she says it was a way to serve more Vermont small businesses. In this way, VtSBDC’s eight business advisors could effectively cover the state, engaging those that were struggling on a mass communication scale.

The need was evident. In a typical year, Rossi says her office works with 600 companies; in the first 11 months of 2020, they fielded 1,700 requests for service.

“A lot of our work was helping companies navigate federal and state programs,” she says. “We spent a lot of time reading through information from Treasury and other agencies, then trying to interpret it in lay language.”

VtSBDC also added a blog to expand their outreach, helping to direct clients to resources that enabled them to take actionable steps, rather than just reacting to the crisis.

Rossi says VtSBDC looks forward to leveraging these new tools in the future, perhaps offering financial training and maintaining these new ways of communicating with customers.

“We believe the future of Vermont lies with the young and up-and-coming business leaders. The more we can educate and build relationships with the next generation, the more they will grow and thrive in the business climate.”

Associated Industries of Vermont (AIV) Vice President William Driscoll, meanwhile, found his organization filling a similar role with regard to communication.

“There was a flood of written guidance and resources,” he says. “The ReStart VT Manufacturing Working Group, facilitated by VMEC and comprised of AIV, the VT Chamber and leaders from several VT manufacturing companies, worked on guidance for manufacturers, and we tried to curate and relay those resources.”

He says that AIV’s partnership with VMEC also entailed a more proactive approach, reaching out to identify companies with products and skills that were applicable to the Coronavirus response.

AIV’s part in this effort involved surveying companies and connecting those needing technical assistance with VMEC or state-level resources for specific support.

“If a company could do something we needed, or if they had flexible capabilities, AIV would forward those responses to the state and Building General Services (BGS) with a copy to VMEC to follow up with any technical assistance they might have to offer.”

He adds that even though we may never encounter a situation like Coronavirus again, it’s vital to be prepared when the potential impact is so high. And with these new resources in place, we can hold onto those with a lasting impact.

“We knew there might be some radical changes to people’s operations, but when we get back to ‘normal’, it will be interesting to see how things really do change. There were reasons the system evolved the way it did, and those won’t just disappear. We have good connections with national/other state organizations that may want to share lessons from around the country.”

“Whether it was outreach to potential suppliers, developing the restart plan, or working with folks to determine what was essential, the inter-sector communication (manufacturers talking more with their peers about sharing challenges and solutions) was definitely beneficial. Finding ways to keep that going will be important and interesting.”

Taken together, these examples offer proof that opportunity lies within even the most acute challenges. Our Vermont manufacturers and service companies continue to leverage their skills and creativity, and we look forward to assisting them in their responses.