When Covid-19 struck, small manufacturers, threatened with survival, innovated to stay healthy

The next time you relax in a hot tub, it might be interesting to note that the tub likely began its life in a factory in Florence, Ky.

The workers at Aristech Surfaces make the acrylic sheets used to form the tubs, seats, and benches for hot tubs, as well as for bathtubs in homes and for countertops used in fast-food restaurants. Aristech ships its acrylic products around the world, including to China, where one of its largest customers is based in Wuhan. Before last year, most Americans had never heard of the city of 11 million people, but it soon became infamous as Ground Zero for the biggest public health crisis of our lifetimes.

In January last year, orders from Wuhan started to disappear, its customers stopped paying, and the lines of communication went dark. A few months later, the same thing happened with Aristech’s customers in Europe, and then in the U.S.

“Demand for our product dropped dramatically,” says Aristech CEO Michael Gilbert. “We faced the question of survival.”

Gilbert and his team performed a detailed assessment of the risks the company faced, its financial stability, and the prospects for surviving something none of them had ever dealt with before.

It soon became apparent that the company’s technology and products could meet the immediate and extraordinary demand for protective barriers at grocery stores, restaurants, schools and other places where people needed to meet face to face. The company hadn’t produced them before, but was able to change course and convert its processes and machines to make the barriers, selling more than $10 million worth of them over a four- to five-month period, Gilbert says.

“It created sales. It created cash to keep us going,” he says.

The company hired 60 more people in the midst of the pandemic and started running the plant seven days a week to keep up with demand.

Aristech was one of many companies that, faced with the unprecedented medical and economic crisis, changed course and quickly adapted to meet pressing needs of their communities, as well as discover new opportunities for business. While much attention was focused on the work going on in vaccine development and trials, as well as in Covid-19 testing, small manufacturers were able to adjust their processes and modify their technologies to not only enable them to stay financially healthy, but to help protect the health of their communities.  

Tri-State Plastics was started in the garage of Lisa and Mark Schneider’s home 28 years ago. Since then, it’s expanded several times and now operates out of a 40,000 square foot facility in Covington’s Latonia neighborhood.

That success was imperiled as the pandemic caused orders from its regular customers to fall off. When Northern Kentucky Tri-ED reached out and said the government was looking for companies to help in the Covid-19 battle, Tri-State Plastics stepped up.

“That’s my philosophy,” says Lisa Schneider. “We can do anything here.”    

What the company did was make more than 150,000 face shields for health care workers at hospitals in Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati.

Workers put together a group of prototypes and sent them to hospitals to get their feedback. Within two weeks, Tri-State was creating and assembling the face shields that health care workers wanted, Schneider says.

The company was able to deliver a fully assembled, ready to use product, sourcing the foam piece from an auto industry supplier in Louisville and the strap from another industry source. It had plenty of PETG in stock, the plastic-type material it uses to manufacture equipment for the pharmaceutical industry, to use for the shield.

The Schneiders hired people who had been laid off from other jobs to assemble the masks, sterilize them and seal them in bags for delivery.

Tri-State Plastics employees also crafted intubation barriers for Christ and UC Health hospitals, clear plastic boxes that allowed nurses to intubate Covid-19 patients while remaining shielded from the contagious virus.

The face shield work, as well as its work making protective barriers for hospitals, as well as for schools, grocery stores, restaurants and bars, more than filled the void in its business caused by the overall slump in economic activity when many businesses shut down of scaled back.

As the coronavirus spread, face masks, gowns, and other personal protective equipment became in high demand, and health care workers and other front-line employees complained of shortages.  Researchers at Erlanger-based AquiSense Technologies had developed a product that used ultraviolet light to disinfect and sanitize water. The researchers accelerated their development pipeline to launch a product to sterilize N95 face masks and other personal protective equipment  so they could be reused.

The product, PearlSurface, was useful in hospital settings, nursing homes, ambulances, police and fire departments, factories, and food preparation locations. It was largely responsible for a tripling in the number of inquiries and sales leads that came to the business, says Mitch Hansen, marketing director.

AquiSense increased its U.S. sales team and expanded its production staff during the pandemic, Hansen says.

Chemist, physicist, and entrepreneur David Schneider started Rem Brands in Walton, Ky. in 2011 to develop technologies for disinfection, odor control, and stain removal. The company developed a product called Sanitrol that can be sprayed on surfaces to kill bacteria and viruses. It was tested by a third party against the new coronavirus, SARS-Cov-2, and was found to be instantly effective, Schneider says.

Its antimicrobial technology also compared favorably to others, such as Procter & Gamble’s Microban24, which promises 24 hours of protection after application. Sanitrol, Schneider says, has been shown to be protective for at least 14 days after being applied to surfaces.

The company also developed a product called OdoGard, which removes odors. As Covid   confined people to their homes, generating and disposing of more garbage, interest in the technology peaked.  

“It really sped up when the pandemic hit,” Schneider says. “That really put the project on full throttle.”

The small, five-employee business landed a major contract with Clorox, which will use the odor-removal technology in its Glad ForceFlex trash bags. Rem Brands plans to use contract manufacturers to scale up production, Schneider says.

Camco Chemical began its life in the ‘60s at a family-owned service station in Fort Thomas, where Dick Rolfes began manufacturing his own line of cleaning agents. That evolved into a company that manufactures, blends, and bottles products that are used in homes, restaurants, offices, nursing homes, schools, and hospitals around the world. The demand for these sanitizers, disinfectants and cleaners increased dramatically with the Covid-19 outbreak.

In February 2020, Camco expanded its blending and bottling operation, now located in Florence, from seven to 10 lines, according to its nomination for a Northern Kentucky Chamber Business Impact Award.  It leased a 100,000 square foot warehouse in Florence, a move that opened up capacity for a $1.2 million investment at its manufacturing plant, the nomination says. The expansion should add 25 jobs to support the increased demand for cleaning products.

Although manufacturers had their survival in mind as they developed new products for a changed marketplace, most also dropped their usual competitive postures and created new avenues of cooperation with each other, including agreeing not to gouge prices for raw materials and supplies needed by other businesses, Lisa Schneider says.

A loose consortium of manufacturers formed, which served as a forum to share ideas and solutions, she says.

“It’s been quite remarkable,” she says. “It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever been a part of.”

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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is the managing editor of NKY Thrives, an award-winning journalist, and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading or watching classic movies.