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Manufacturers pivot to supply coronavirus protection

While some plants have shut down or reduced hours, Kimberly Clark is one of the manufacturers that is hiring. While some plants have shut down or reduced hours, Kimberly Clark is one of the manufacturers that is hiring.

Some Henderson County manufacturers are pivoting to meet the most critical supply needs during the Covid-19 response, including hand sanitizer, hospital gowns and face shields.

Brittany Jones Brady, president of the Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development, said manufacturing remains a hugely important part of the county's economy. Many factories have remained busy even as a statewide stay-at-home orders have shut down much of the restaurant and hospitality industry and many smaller shops.

"We have had some companies that unfortunately have had to close for a short time because of supply chain," Brady said. "For the most part a good amount are open and operating very cautiously.”

In the last decade, the manufacturing sector has made close to $732 million in new capital investment, generating $5,396,855 a year in property taxes. The Partnership’s survey of manufacturers indicated that about nine companies idled at least some of their workforce, impacting around a quarter of the 6,000 factory jobs.

“We believe the best estimate of that number is probably close to 1,300 that have been impacted in some capacity,” she said. If not furloughed outright, workers may have reduced hours or be employed at a plant that is having week-long or two-week shutdowns and then restarting.

“Some just out of caution and the supply chain issue are closing down during the stay-at-home order or working with a skeleton crew,” Brady said. “They might be working four days and then closed for a week.”

“We've got about six companies primarily on the cut-and-sew side testing the waters” on things like masks and gowns, she said. “It's hard to pivot from outdoor equipment to making medical gowns overnight. The company that's probably moving the quickest is Manual Woodworkers and Weavers.” The plant on Howard Gap Road has been experimenting with non-medical face masks. “The hospitals are working with them and telling them, ‘Yes this will work. No, this won't work.’" A Pardee employee has gone to the plant, picked up samples and brought them back to Pardee for doctors and nurses to try on, to make sure “they can still lean over and take somebody’s temperature with the gown.”

Brevard-based Gaia Herbs, which opened a plant and distribution center in Mills River last year, is working on hand sanitizer. “They’re working with hospitals to make sure there’s a demand,” she said. Another company is using 3-D printers to make face shields.

The companies are stepping up even though the payoff is not clear.

“They're taking a risk in doing so,” she said. “Setting up a prototype for a new product in any realm is always costly.”

Companies like Kimberly Clark and Raumedic are seeing a spike in demand for their regular products.

Companies currenting hiring include GF Linamar, Diamond Brand Gear, Mountain Showcase Group, Raumedic,
Smartrac, UPM Raflatac, Kimberly-Clark, HiViz LED Lighting, Haynes Wire, and WestRock packaging. Click here for more.

With signs that the coronavirus may be leveling off, manufacturing executives have had a brighter outlook.

“I think everybody is optimistic” that the economy could start to reopen, especially with some revised numbers showing leveling off of cases, Brady said. “Obviously this is not an easy time for anybody but I believe we have a very resilient community and people want to work. The first thing they want to do is take care of their employees and they’re taking extra steps to make sure there’s not a spread of the virus in their facility. Everybody is as optimistic as you can be during a pandemic."