One of Vermont’s oldest manufacturers shifts from wood products to personal protective equipment.
By Christine McGowan, Forest Products Program Director at Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund.
As stay-at-home orders rippled through Vermont’s business community last month, one of the state’s oldest manufacturers, J.K. Adams began to experiment with cutting plastic instead of wood. “We have five Computer Numerical Control (CNC) routers and an amazingly talented workforce,” said CEO Dan Isaac, “so the question we were all asking was ‘what can we do to help?’”
Isaac began putting feelers out to his network, looking at how companies like Bauer in New Hampshire had shifted from making hockey masks to producing face shields for health care workers. For manufacturers of wooden kitchen items such as cutting and serving boards, the answer was less obvious, until Millennium Slate in neighboring Granville, NY approached the company about designing and cutting plastic face shields.
“They had the technology and adhesive materials to make the masks, but needed someone to cut the plastic,” said J.K. Adams owner, Malcolm Cooper. “So we got to work.”
Once he was certain he could do so safely, Isaac brought back a few employees to work up a prototype. They found that by retooling the CNC routers with new bits, they could cut multiple face shields at once on the machines. They began to supply Millenium Slate with the plastic shields, and with the feedback from medical first responders, they designed and manufactured a slightly different full face shield in-house.
“The demand for PPE by healthcare workers on the front line was in the news daily,” said Isaac, “and we had the capacity to do more.”
Capacity to Make 50,000 Shields Per Week
With input and feedback from the UVM Medical Center, J.K. Adams designed a clear polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic full-face shield and almost immediately began filling orders for UVM Medical Center, the State of Vermont, police departments, firehouses, and small businesses such as pharmacies in need of personal protective equipment. They are currently filling orders for 5,000 to 20,000 face shields at a time, and have the capacity to increase that number. “At full capacity, we can make 50,000 shields a week,” said Isaac, who says they are rapidly adjusting operations to meet demand. “The health and safety of our team is paramount, but we are in a good position to take orders of 200,000 or more.”
In addition to providing their team with protective equipment, they are sanitizing the manufacturing area every hour and doing a full clean between shifts. They have also divided the workday into multiple shifts to allow for social distancing and set up remote working for employees who can work from home. Among those remote workers is Janice Corey, who has been with J.K. Adams for more than 50 years. “Janice is absolutely instrumental,” said Isaac. “We have her set up at home with a laptop working on procurement and inventory.” One of the area’s largest employers, J.K. Adams had 40-plus full-time employees prior to COVID-19. To date, they have been able to rehire about 25 percent of their workforce, and expect to bring as many who are willing and able back to work as production increases.
“We are only seeing growing demand at this point,” said Isaac, “so the current plan is to continue manufacturing face shields even once we are able to resume making our wood products.” The design team is currently working on a new model that can be sanitized between uses. “We struggle with the environmental impact of a single-use plastic face shield,” said Isaac. “It is what has been demanded by the buyers and end-users, but we are working with medical professionals on a version 2.0 that will be fully sanitizable and reusable.”
Isaac added that companies all over Vermont and around the country are working together, sharing information and design ideas to solve a real-time problem. “It’s inspiring,” he said. “It makes me proud to be a Vermonter and to work for a company that can make a difference.”
In a 2018 interview with the Vermont Forest Industry Network, 70-year-old Cooper, who is the second-generation owner of J.K. Adams, commented that his business has always been about innovation, quality and people. “We are constantly looking at how people live,” he said in the interview, “and asking how we can enhance their lives.” Who would have thought that his company’s ethos would lead them from barbeque boards and cheese trays to medical face shields for frontline healthcare workers?
About the Vermont Forest Industry Network
Like most, the forest products industry in Vermont is experiencing uncertainty during COVID-19 and finding ways to innovate and respond. From JK Adams making face shields to county foresters hosting virtual forest walks, and woodworkers turning out birdhouse kits for kids, the industry is finding ways to support their employees, customers and communities. The Vermont Forest Industry Network creates the space for industry professionals from across the entire supply chain and trade association partners throughout the state to build stronger relationships and collaboration throughout the industry.
Vermont’s forest products industry generates an annual economic output of $1.4 billion and supports 10,500 jobs in forestry, logging, processing, specialty woodworking, construction, and wood heating. Forest-based recreation adds an additional $1.9 billion and 10,000 jobs to Vermont’s economy. Learn more or join at www.vsjf.org. For COVID-19 updates from the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, please visit FPR COVID-19 Response.