A Maryland Manufacturer Pivots to PPE

By Jeffrey Bonior
May 15 2020 |
Healthcare workers wear Maryland Thermoform’s face shields. | Photo provided by Maryland Thermoform

Baltimore-based company is cranking out face shields for healthcare workers and first-responders.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic and its squeeze on supply chains, many domestic manufacturers switched their normal production to much-needed personal protective equipment (PPE) in a matter of days.

While companies that rely on imports can wait for weeks to receive materials often found defective when they finally arrive, that’s not a problem for customers of plastics manufacturer Maryland Thermoform Corporation, a member of the Maryland World Class Consortia that represents many made-in-Maryland companies.

Maryland Thermoform makes plastic products ranging from heavy-duty desks (like those seen on television newscasts or NFL pregame shows) to durable but lightweight military applications in its 44,000 square-foot factory in southwest Baltimore. They also manufacture blister packaging for cosmetic companies and produce those lightweight trays that hold votive candles you may purchase at Yankee Candle.

So, it is no surprise that Maryland Thermoform, with the help of a few of its Consortia partners, was able to jump right in to manufacturing PPE when America’s need for those products became critical.

Maryland Thermoform is currently making thousands of face shields under the brand name Quake Scientific, along with intubation boxes that add extra protection for hospital workers when a Covid-19 patient is being put on a ventilator. And with a warehouse full of plastic on hand, it’s also producing sneeze guards that are becoming a staple at retail businesses.

The company sources its raw plastic from American suppliers. It comes in rolls, much like the rolled steel melted and poured at American steel mills. From there, it can be fabricated into just about any plastic product design.

“We do have to compete globally, but we have made a decision to buy American-made,” said Carl Livesay, the company’s vice president of operations. “Frankly, we get a better-quality product and much better lead time from American manufacturers. There is a dramatic difference in the quality of the product, and we prefer to do business with companies in America. It is a kind of keep the jobs here thing and the quality and lead times are huge.”

"We looked around on the market and did our research."

With the company’s diversity of products, Livesay and his team are confident they can sustain the downturn in normal business.

“We kind of pivoted before business got too bad. We saw back in February – we pay real close attention to the industry indicators – that right after the end of the year there is typically a surge that comes because a lot of our customers don’t want to carry the inventory at year end for tax reasons so there is pent up demand,” said Livesay. “And we didn’t see that this year.

“We couldn’t figure out why and we noticed the lead times were getting longer for imported products and then they started putting tariffs on imported products. The tariffs were actually quite good for us because it made us a lot more competitive. We are buying domestic products at a higher cost than our foreign competitors so when they put the tariffs in place it kind of leveled the playing field. In fact, it gave us an advantage because our lead times were shorter.”

This was about the time people started to see the indications of a pandemic coming out of China and the bottom fell out of Maryland Thermoform sales.

“We looked at it and asked two questions. One was, holy heck what are we going to do? And the second was, is there is a demand for PPE and other products and what can we do to help?

“We went to the medical community and they had a need for durable, comfortable face shields. We happened to have a whole lot of material to make the shields out of because that’s the business we are in. There are a lot of flimsy, cheap face shields out there so we decided we were going to make a top-quality, American-made product.

“We looked around on the market and did our research and said we could either compete for the cheapest things around and sell millions of them making pennies at a time, or we could build something that is an upgraded version. So, we contacted some of the local manufacturers in the area and said we are going to be making these things and asked what they could do to help. Several of them stepped forward.

“They, of course, were looking for work too, but they felt they really wanted to be part of this.”

Partnering with Thermoform were Consortia members Hub Labels, which made all the American flag labeling at the top of the shields, and Orlando Products, which provided the foam coating that provides a comfortable barrier on a first-responder’s forehead.

The foam typically comes in large sheets, but Joe Orlando, owner of Orlando Products, agreed to cut the foam into 13-inch strips with an adhesive backing that is attached to the top of the plastic shield. A wide, American-sourced elastic band is attached to the foam, giving the mask a tight but comfortable fit for maximum protection.

"It's just the right thing to do."

Livesay is running two shifts at the Thermoform factory and can build about 20,000 masks per day, but says they can increase production if the demand is warranted.

“We are sending them literally around the country, but I get notes from a lot of states that say they are going to do business with bigger companies,” said Livesay. “We are not in this to make money. We just want to cover our overhead and be able to pay our employees.”

Maryland Thermoform has been able to remain open because it is deemed an essential business since it makes tier 2 plastic products for military defense contractors like Raytheon Technologies, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin.

But the company was operating with a skeleton crew of about eight people and Livesay wanted to bring more employees back to work.

So if they show up in a police car or a fireman or nurse’s uniform, we just give them a box out the back door. We didn’t have the heart to turn our backs on these people because they are out there saving everybody’s lives. Carl Livesay, Maryland Thermoform

Livesay has donated thousands of the face shields and sold many more thousands at cost. But he has put a price on the shields in order to pay the company’s overhead and bring back 50 workers.

“Our face shields are priced at under $5 apiece but they are durable, non-porous, washable and easy to disinfect,” said Livesay. “We’ve had people wear them every day for a month before they started showing signs of wear. If they start to wear out or get contaminated, you just throw them out. It’s only five bucks.

“One of the reasons we started charging that price is we discovered the hospitals were not providing proper equipment for the nurses. The police and fire departments were not providing the proper equipment. So, we had people calling us that wanted to buy them for their teams, buddies or families members because what they were being issued was just junk.

“So if they show up in a police car or a fireman or nurse’s uniform, we just give them a box out the back door. We didn’t have the heart to turn our backs on these people because they are out there saving everybody’s lives. If they call us and say they need 50 masks, we send somebody down to deliver them at no cost.

“We do want to sell them, but this is personal for me. We want to get them out there anyway we can. These people are putting themselves on the line for us and we want to make sure they have the best face-shields out there – ones that are American made right here in Baltimore.

“It’s just the right thing to do.”