You’ve probably heard this phrase before: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

It’s been uttered everywhere from politics to board rooms. And now we’re hearing its echoes again as we navigate the uncertain waters of the coronavirus pandemic.

In some ways, even we here at Enterprise Minnesota are following that advice. You may recall that our State of Manufacturing annual survey was cut short last spring when social distancing and stay-at-home orders prevented us from convening focus groups.

But instead of merely lamenting the loss of a survey that has become crucial to understanding the industry, we did what any smart manufacturer would do: We thought strategically. We plotted out a plan to reposition the survey as a way to plumb the minds of manufacturers about how the pandemic has impacted their businesses. So this month our survey team is in the field asking all the questions you would ask. We’re also convening focus groups so we can get candid insight into what’s really going on with Minnesota’s manufacturers.

When we made the decision to delay, we’d hoped there’d be more stability in the economy. The jury is still out on that, but it’s clear the pandemic isn’t going anywhere for a while. It’s also clear its impact has been profound. Our annual survey provides vital information about every facet of the industry. We have no doubt it will give us a unique look at the pandemic’s toll so far.

We’ve already got some evidence of how things are going, and by many accounts manufacturers are proving resilient and nimble. Nowhere is that more evident than in this issue’s cover story. InLine Motion used youthful ingenuity, engineering prowess and good old-fashioned hustle to turn a crisis into an opportunity.

A Detroit Lakes-based company that specializes in food handling and manufacturing automation, InLine Motion used Facebook to gauge interest in an idea they’d been simmering when the pandemic made it clear that personal protective equipment would be part of the new normal for a while. Would people be interested in an InLine-designed protective face shield? The response they got — 20,000 pageviews within five hours — confirmed their belief that a quick pivot to face shields would be worth their time. Within four months they’d produced 90,000 face shields and shipped them to 40 states.

Elsewhere, we’re seeing manufacturers putting their money where their mouth is. Millerbernd Manufacturing in Winsted, for example, forged ahead on a $12 million expansion that promises to add 100 jobs. That’s not the kind of move you make if you’re not bullish on the future.

Still, we can’t ignore that we’re living in an era blanketed in uncertainty, and that includes the economy. We felt a similar vibe during the 2009 recession, but this one feels different for several reasons. The previous recession appeared to hit everyone equally. This recession, on the other hand, has seen some manufacturers bear a more substantial chunk of the burden than others. Manufacturers in pharmaceuticals or food have fared well; automobile manufacturers have not.

Also, the 2009 recession acted more like a garden-variety downturn, the kind economists can size up and make reasonable predictions about. This COVID-19-based recession, however, is anything but reasonable. COVID-related questions and uncertainties have riddled manufacturers’ efforts at planning their futures.

How well will public health officials predict and track the spread of infections? Will the virus mutate? Will it just dry up and die? Will masks prevent the spread? Does temperature monitoring do any good? Are social distancing tactics effective?

Our State of Manufacturing survey may not have answers to these questions, but it will put a finger on the pulse of the manufacturing community. Stay tuned.

Featured story in the Fall 2020 issue of Enterprise Minnesota magazine. 

Return to Fall 2020 magazine