Lynn Shelton

Face Value

The Weekly Report – August 17, 2020
A tiny Detroit Lakes engineering firm asked Facebook if there might be a COVID-19 market for plastic PPE face shields. Within five hours, the post received 20,000 pageviews.

Within two days, they were making products. Four months later, the company had produced 90,000 units on their way to 40 states and three countries — and more are coming.

Lucas Hoffman and Marco Fenu are two Detroit Lakes-based engineer/entrepreneurs who own InLine Motion, a company that designs and manufactures conveyance equipment for the food processing industry. In the four years since they founded the company, they experienced admirable levels of growth, until the constraints of the COVID economy started to reduce their work orders.

To fill that gap, the two wondered about taking a detour into the production of PPE-related face shields. They recognized they could likely produce protective face shields without a significant upfront financial investment or having to retool their equipment. But how many should they make? And who would want them?

We’ll use the next issue of Enterprise Minnesota® magazine to profile what has become a truly remarkable business journey.

It began at about 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 26, when they posted a Facebook inquiry to gauge market demand for medical-grade PPE plastic shields.

“We are able to design and produce face shields, but we do not know where we should send them,” the post said. “We are seeking healthcare facilities who are in need of accepting locations. Please help us get in contact by liking and sharing the post!”

In about the time it took for Fenu to make the drive from the company’s 4,800-foot facility just west of Detroit Lakes to his home in Hawley — about 20 minutes — the post had already generated a whopping 4,000 pageviews.  By 11 p.m., it had received more than 20,000 views, with responses from New York to Thailand to Zimbabwe.

That first night the two engineers merely knew they had stumbled upon an intriguing diversion. Working separately from their homes, they turned off their phones and convened a WebEx video conference to collaborate on a prototype. A quick web search revealed that many current products appeared cheaply made or required unnecessary assembly. “We saw what we didn’t want to do,” Fenu says. So, they started from scratch. Beginning by cutting up paper plates, they fashioned prototypes they hoped would adjust comfortably and easily to the different sizes and shapes of the human heads that would likely be wearing them for long periods.

Finally satisfied with the first night’s model, they went to bed, but not before Hoffman drove back to the office to program their printer to ensure that a 3D version would be ready for when they arrived the next morning.

But they didn’t like it. Not enough comfort. Hoffman and Fenu didn’t like the next one, either. Or the next one. All through the day, they tweaked programming changes into their CNC router — faster than the 3D printer — and produced 22 varieties of the face shield before settling on the model they wanted to manufacture.

With a satisfactory prototype in place, still on Friday, the InLine Motion partners started to research and procure materials they could use to produce shields over the following week. They planned to produce a three-piece unit that could be shipped flat, and that end-users could assemble and adjust for use in less than a minute. Their list of materials included a sturdy transparent material for the shield (“the clears”), something to make up the adjustable headband that would affix to the shield (“the halo”), and a piece of equipment that would effectively ensure a tight fit (“the backstrap”),

About four months after the initial Facebook post, their new subsidiary, InLine PPE, had leveraged the help of other Minnesota companies to produce almost 90,000 high-quality, easy-to-assemble, reusable face shields for health care customers in 40 states and three countries. And to add just a little made-for-TV drama, just before Hoffman and Fenu were to deliver their single-biggest delivery of face masks to their most consequential customer, a crucial supplier temporarily ceased operations. Riot-related arsonists, it turned out, had burned down a neighboring building, and they didn’t yet feel safe restarting their operations. To find out what happened, you’ll have to read the magazine!

Look for our next issue due to publish on Sept. 15.

Subscribe to Enterprise Minnesota® magazine, click here.

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Events Calendar

August 19 – Driving Continuous Improvement in Uncertain Times
David Ahlquist, a seasoned CI and ISO expert will show you how and why Continuous Improvement can be used to help your business continue to meet customer demands while improving your bottom line. Online via Zoom  Learn more and register

August 27 – Driving Continuous Improvement in Uncertain Times
Can’t make it August 19? Join us for David Ahlquist’s engaging presentation on how manufacturers can leverage CI to improve operations and weather uncertainty. Online via Zoom  Learn more and register

September 11 – Leading Through Daily Dialogue (part I)
Continuous improvement expert Greg Langfield will be demonstrating how managers can use CI to better communicate with shop floor employees and work smarter, not harder to meet customer demands. Online via Zoom  Learn more and register

September 17 – Sustaining Daily Dialogue (part II)
Join Greg Langfield for part 2 of his Continuous Improvement workshop on how to sustain your CI efforts for long term success. Online via Zoom  Learn more and register

WIDSETH architecture and engineering

Industry News

High-tech sewer-pipe plug manufacturer relocating to Shakopee
Cherne Industries has begun construction on a new headquarters and manufacturing building expected to be complete in 2021. August 13, Star Tribune  Read more

Northwestern Minnesota bouncing back after pandemic-fueled unemployment
Demand for workers is picking up in hard-hit northwestern Minnesota as manufacturers adapt and increase production capacity. August 7, Grand Forks Herald  Read more

Heavy truck manufacturer dedicates Dodge Center headquarters to recycling
McNeilus Truck and Manufacturing is boosting its capacity to build products for the refuse industry as they dedicate a new building in Dodge Center. August 4,  Read more

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