WOONSOCKET – Perhaps you've bought into the notion that manufacturing can-do is a creature of another era around here.
The evidence of late suggests that oft-repeated trope about the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution – the Blackstone Valley – is back on the shop floor for retooling.
Thanks to the demands, pressures and shortages of the swift-moving Covid-19 pandemic, local businesses are shifting gears to meet the challenge, and the latest example is Sheahan Printing, located at 1 Front St. Founded in 1929, the company's core business has always been printing – marketing brochures, catalogues, flyers and more.
Suddenly, Sheahan Printing's chief line of work is assembling face shields for medical personnel and firefighters – essential protective equipment for first-responders dealing with the scourge of Covid-19.
“Believe it or not, it's something we never thought of doing before,” said Vice President Kevin Sheahan.
During the last two weeks or so, the print shop Sheahan runs with his brother David at the foot of the Court Street Bridge has manufactured about 3,000 face shields for Landmark Medical Center, which gives some of them to the Woonsocket Fire Department. And the company has orders for 30,000 more from Landmark, Fatima Hospital in North Providence and Roger Williams Hospital in Providence, according to Sheahan.
Sheahan can't remember taking particular note of the use of face shields in the medical professions before before the Covid-19 crisis hit Rhode Island. That all changed one day last month when Landmark's Chief of Public Security Gino Olaes came into shop carrying one and asked him if it were possible to make something similar using 3D printing techniques.
Sheahan looked at Olaes' sample shield and thought for a moment.
“I said, 'Well, I can't help you with that but there might be a more efficient, less-expensive way to produce these face shields,'” recalled Sheahan.
Instead of using a 3D printer, Sheahan thought it would be faster and less costly to produce the face shields the old-fashioned way – by hand.
The company is purchasing the necessary materials from other suppliers and its staff of seven employees is assembling them in the shop overlooking the Blackstone River. All that's needed is some clear acetate, foam padding and a rubberized band that holds the device in place.
“We're buying the clear acetate and die-cutting the shape out of a flat sheet and then trimming it down to size and then using some of our stitching equipment to stitch the band onto the acetate,” says Sheahan. “And we are applying a strip of foam that wraps on your forehead.”
Using these traditional techniques of light assembly, says Sheahan, “we're able to produce these a lot more efficiently and probably at a cheaper price” than permitted by 3D printing. Many other companies are doing 3D printing of face shields, however, including one in nearby Northbridge, Mass.
In addition to gowns, N95 respirator masks and laetrile gloves, face shields are considered one of the main components of healthcare and first-responder PPE, which stands for personal protective equipment. Covid-19, which had sickened over 1,200 people and caused the deaths of about 30 others in Rhode Island as of this writing, is a highly contagious pathogen that is usually passed on to others through coughing or sneezing.
Once the virus is transmitted, it can be picked up by another human host by touching a surface tainted with the pathogen or by directly entering the mouth, nose or eyes, which is why face shields and other PPE are so critical.
Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt says she's deeply grateful that Sheahan Printing and other local businesses have been nimble and concerned enough to answer the call of Covid-19.
Their commitment to helping their neighbors is reminiscent of the response of the American industrial machine to World War II, including that of city-based U.S. Rubber Company. In the 1940s, the U.S. Rubber Company was mainly manufacturing shoes and boots from the now-defunct Alice Mill on Fairmount Street when the government asked it to manufacture fake rubber decoys of tanks and other artillery to fool the Nazis into thinking the military had more might than it actually did – a fatal diversion for the enemy.
Sheahan Printing isn't the only local firm that's stepped up for the new war on Covid-19. Across town, along another squiggle of the Blackstone River, the Brickle Group has pivoted to making face masks. Normally, one of the last textile spinners in the region is mostly focused on making woolen blankets for the military.
“I'm extremely grateful we have companies in the city of Woonsocket who are realigning what they ordinarily do and focusing on the needs of healthcare workers and public safety officials and the residents as a whole,” said Baldelli-Hunt. “The fact that they can modify their equipment to make an item that is in dire need at this very critical time is a testament to their commitment to the city, the state – and humanity.”
Just a couple of weeks ago, Sheahan said, he'd never given much thought to the fact that face shields were even a thing in infection control, let alone to making them.
Sheahan says he still hasn't figured out how much money the company will make on its latest venture, since supply chains are already getting iffy as more and more businesses compete foray into the PPE business and compete for limited resources. He's more concerned about passing the products along to customers affordably than price points at this particular phase of production, anyway.
But he's impressed by the way his staff has adapted, throwing itself into the task with enthusiasm and creativity. He credits his brother Dave, with overseeing what he calls “the project” and says feedback from the staff has been invaluable.
“I'm pretty proud of what we've been able to plan for and been able to achieve,” says Sheahan. “My employees have taken on the challenge to help develop this shield and produce it efficiently all while putting aside their typical work.”
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo