How the Pandemic Inspired us to Change our Business

March 01, 2021
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Photo Credit: Alissa Eckert, MSMI, Dan Higgins, MAMS

Looking back, it’s impossible to believe that a year has passed since we completely changed the way we do business. “We” are a Portland, Oregon based manufacturer of shelf-stable and ready-to-eat food packaging made from recycled materials, that are themselves recyclable. You can probably guess that our business model has a strong ethic of environmental sustainability. We’re all about optimizing the recycling chain. Merchants should feel good about stocking products in our packaging, and consumers should feel good about using and recycling them.

When the harsh reality of the pandemic dawned on us in March of 2020, we knew everything we believe and work for would have to change. We knew the pandemic was going to make a huge dent in our business. At the same time, it became obvious that face shields and personal protective equipment (PPE) were going to be in very high demand. So I, along with Ryan Newson, our Creative Director, and Ben McGregor, our Director of Engineering, started researching how face shields and PPE were made.

In one day—yes, one day—we went from barely knowing anything about PPE to designing and producing the first face shield and face mask prototypes that could be manufactured from recycled materials. Then we kept tinkering and evolving, like we do with every product. When demand for our core food packaging declined 80%-90% in a matter of a few days, it was a real gut check. But focusing on perfecting our designs proved to be a healthy distraction we needed, and we quickly realized that PPE was what we were going to be doing for the foreseeable future. And we haven’t looked back from that point. We’ve just kept moving forward.

Ramping up and learning to function during the pandemic

Trying to keep a company running at the same time you’re working on something that’s never been done before can be pure hell. Almost everything we’d been working on before the pandemic came to a screeching halt, which was scary. But our engineering team—led by Ben, , Ashish Kaushal, and Ryan—hunkered down and continued the work of perfecting our face shield and face mask designs, and began working on our first N95 filter mask concepts.

It was crazy, because we had landed a face shield contract within 10 or 15 days, and PPE went from zero to 45% of our sales in four weeks. For companies approaching $100 million in annual sales, changing product focus that quickly is unheard of. But being vertically integrated, we had the resources and materials in supply, and with domestic production, we were able to pivot in the truest sense of the word.

Around this time, Ford Motor Co. started converting much of its manufacturing capacity to producing ventilators and other medical equipment, and Apple started producing 100,000 face shields a week (it later increased its volume). I could see the impact we were going to make when we started making 60,000-100,000 face shields each day.

Taking Care of Our People

Things got intense because, at the time, nobody really knew how to safely operate a manufacturing facility during a pandemic. To protect our employees, one of our first decisions was to guarantee that anybody who got sick or injured by coming to work would continue to be paid, whether it was for a week, or months. I was praying for nobody to get sick, but as an essential supplier to the food and medical industries, we were asking people to leave their families and the safety of their homes and come to work. And, we had to continue operating or we might not have a company or anything for our people to return to when it was all over.

Learning, a new normal, and all hands on deck

It didn’t take long before we started to wrap our arms around the challenges, and every day, we started building more knowledge and developing a strategy for moving forward. One challenge that loomed was securing FDA approval to become a medical grade production site. As a food industry supplier, we’d long been accustomed to meeting high sanitation and clean production standards. But getting through the bureaucracy quickly doesn’t just happen. To help with FDA approval we turned to Oregon’s U.S. Senators, Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, who recognized what we were doing and the promise of our immense production capabilities, and recommended that we receive priority status on the FDA’s review list. In the end, FDA approval took just 35 days. Thank you, Senators Merkley and Wyden!

After FDA approval, we brought everybody we could find into our warehouse: temps, their friends, and friends of friends. Anyone who wanted a job producing masks and face shields was offered a job. To help protect everyone’s safety, we implemented heightened sanitation standards and work protocols. We had to enforce glove and mask wearing, trained employees on how to scan everyone’s temperatures before they entered our facility, and implemented protocols on what to do if someone gets sick. Nobody knew how long we’d need to be operating under these conditions, but it was incredible how everybody rallied around these new policies with a can-do attitude.

Working toward N95 mask approval

Soon we began testing our N95 mask designs, and our challenges only escalated. These are medical-grade masks, known as N95 filtering facepiece respirators (FFRs), that meet the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) standard for filtering at least 95% of airborne particles. At the time, the very testing equipment that was needed to certify mask efficacy were sold out and on back-order for more than a year. Undeterred, Ryan and I contacted OHSU, which had one of the only labs in our area, and went there during the initial COVID-19 surge to test our masks. OHSU, and in particular Dr. Nathan Sheldon, proved incredibly helpful. With several prototypes in the pipeline, we were going to OHSU every other day, tweaking designs and testing different materials. When the surge got really bad, I had to tell Ryan to stay back to avoid the risk of us both getting sick. We just threw ourselves on the pile to help out.

It was a very intense, emotional time, because some of us had some personal things going on in our lives, and we didn’t want any people to get sick. When our N95 mask design passed its initial safety test in OHSU’s lab, I cried. We had never designed or produced a product of this caliber, one that takes some businesses 2-1/2 years, and we had done it in under 35 days. We’re just a small eco-based thermoformer who wanted to help out during a crucial time when it was needed, and we’re really lucky that we got crucial support from both outside and inside our company when we needed it.  

How will all of this change D6 Inc. in the future? I’m always willing to sacrifice what we are for what we need to become. It’s easy to say but hard to do unless your entire team is behind you. Fortunately, our core business began to rebound by last June or July, so we’re not abandoning food packaging anytime soon. People have to eat!

Right now we’re selling face shields and FFR masks, and just waiting on NIOSH for formal certification of our N95 mask designs so that we can start kicking out tens to hundreds of thousands of them every day. They’re still in short supply globally, and we’re eager for our chance to get in the N95 game.

Next in this series: Conquering the challenges of the recycling industry, an update on our N95 approval status, and lessons learned.