The global coronavirus outbreak has plastics machinery companies scrambling to meet demand for medical equipment.
But COVID-19 has another way to hit companies, as KraussMaffei Group GmbH announced that its top executive had resigned and was leaving amid "further rationalization" to respond to the crisis and its economic aftermath.
Munich-based KraussMaffei announced March 26 that Frank Stieler will resign as CEO of the big machinery maker on March 31 and that Michael Ruf, who was the chief operating officer, will take the CEO spot. The COO position will remain unfilled.
KraussMaffei issued a news release that said the changes were coming because of COVID-19: "Under the leadership of ... Ruf the company will streamline its organization. This allows further rationalization to deal with the challenges from the current complicated and volatile economic situation and the impact from the [coronavirus] crisis."
Ruf said: "We are ready to face such challenges. I enjoyed working with Frank Stieler thereby creating the concepts for the changes together. I am grateful that he developed the company to this level."
Here is a recap of other machinery news in this time of pandemic:
Injection press maker Engel Holding GmbH, meanwhile, has closed all of its factories in Austria after some workers were diagnosed with COVID-19.
In Troisdorf, Germany, Reifenhäuser Reicofil GmbH & Co. KG has converted two of its testing operations to help battle the pandemic. The lines installed in the nonwoven technology center, normally used for research and development and customer trials, now are making melt-blown material for the production of face masks.
Company officials announced March 23 that, until further notice, the melt-blown lines will be operated 24/7, in a four-shift operation. The daily output makes enough material for 1 million face masks — and the melt-blown material is already sold out for the next five weeks.
Since Reifenhäuser Reicofil has been unable to find German or European faced mask manufacturers, the company is sending the nonwoven fabric to a manufacturer in Vietnam. But company officials continue to look for mask makers in Europe.
"We have considered what contribution we can make in this crisis. This is, of course, mainly the fast delivery of melt-blown lines to build up additional capacities," said Bernd Kunze, CEO of Reifenhäuser Reicolfil. "We have drastically reduced our delivery times here. But we also wanted to provide support at shorter notice. Until the currently lacking capacities are built up, we are therefore stepping in with test plants in our pilot plant station. Not using this capacity now would be irresponsible in our view."
Customer trials have been suspended.
Kunze also said the company could produce material for medical protective clothing, on short notice — by using its existing equipment or expanding with new factories.
Kunze wants to hear from German or European companies looking for melt-blown material to produce masks or protective clothing. The email is [email protected]
Stratasys Ltd., the maker of 3D printing equipment, wants to rally companies in the United States. The initial goal is to make 5,000 face shields by March 27. There is no cost to the participants.
The company will be able to scale up for an even faster rate of production. Components of the protective face masks are a 3D printed frame and a clear plastic shield covering the entire face. Medtronic and Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis are providing the plastic shield material.
Any 3D printing shop that wants to help plastic frames for the face shields can fill out an online form to join the effort: https://go.stratasys.com/lp-stratasys-helps.html.
Stratasys also has posted the instructions for printing and assembly of the face shields on its COVID-19 response page: https://www.stratasys.com/covid-19.
One of the world's top hospitals told Stratasys it uses 1,530 disposable face shields every week, even without the surge in demand created by COVID-19. The hospital is down to only six days of inventory, the company said.
"We are humbled by the opportunity to help," said Yoav Zief, Stratasys CEO. "We see additive manufacturing as an essential part of the response to the COVID-19 global epidemic."
America Makes in Youngstown, Ohio, is partnering with the Food and Drug Administration to help ensure the additive manufacturing industry can meet the needs America's health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis.
America Makes has an online repository to connect the capabilities of the additive manufacturing industry with specific needs of health care providers: www.americamakes.us/covid-19. The site eventually will include a pathway for health care safety product designs to be uploaded for review so that meet medical standards, and then downloaded for use in production.
America Makes is part of the Department of Defense Manufacturing Innovation Institute.
Wittmann Battenfeld Inc. is remaining open for business in Torrington, Conn., during the COVID-19 outbreak, being deemed an essential business by the state of Connecticut for supplying machinery and support to numerous medical and packaging molders that are ramping up operations to meet critical supplies to battle the pandemic.
"As of today [March 25], we have received 45 "essential status" letters from customers who mold products that are critical to saving lives and battling this pandemic," President David Preusse said. "We are doing all we can to support these customers with our molding machines, robots, auxiliary equipment, spare parts and customer support."
Preusse noted that, while Wittmann Battenfeld continues operations, the company has taken measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus and directed many of its employees to work from home.
"We have about 30 staff on hand at our two plants in Torrington to work on the essential jobs," he said. "Luckily we took action to be ahead of the curve. We tested our IT systems before we hit the urgent time to shutter all office staff and most manufacturing staff, in a 'hot state.' We have over 50 staff now working remotely."
The company has made some adjustments to customer service, creating a series of webinars for robot training to temporarily take the place of in-person classes. Also, the company has numerous apps and online support systems available for customers 24/7.
"We have regional-based service staff available to drive to customer locations when called upon, minimizing air travel," Preusse said. "We're running Team Viewer meetings, web-based service and Face Time with our customers to help them keep running, and orders are still coming in. Many of these orders are urgent to help in the pandemic."
Preusse writes updates to all employees every other day. He also put in place two weeks' pay and paid time off to help employees get through what had been an executive order for all companies in Connecticut to shut down, starting March 20, for four-and-a-half weeks. Two days later, the state changed course and offered all Connecticut manufacturing companies to be exempt from the shutdown.
He said employee morale is high.
"Plastics are essential materials for manufacturing items that are essential to battling the COVID-19 crisis," Preusse said. "The important of plastics at a time like this cannot be overstated, and we are proud to be a part of this industry."
Robot makers Hekuma GmbH and Hahn Automation Group are working to keep the pipeline of high-speed medical automation filled — for coronavirus testing equipment and other medical uses.
"It looks like all machines from our portfolio — petri dishes, pipette tips, reaction vessels and blood tubes — are coming now up with higher demand," said Helmut Schmid, deputy head of sales at Hekuma in Hallbergmoos, Germany. "Companies are extremely busy with their existing production and start now thinking about higher output and additional production demands," he said.
Schmid said most demand for medical automation is coming from the United States and Europe. Asia is not as busy for new medical automation systems because molders there tend to use older injection molding machines for free-dropping parts from the press and then sorting or loading the parts manually to trays.
Hahn makes several automation brands, including Waldorf, known for handling medical disposables like pipette tips, reaction vessels and diagnostic caps. "Eighty percent of our business is in medical diagnostics. Our customers are all running on full capacity again, as much as possible under the current circumstances," said Markus Klaus, president of Hahn Plastics Automation Inc. in Windsor, Conn., the U.S. unit of the Germany-based Hahn Automation Group.
Klaus said Hahn Plastics Automation is considered an essential business in Connecticut, so the operation is running and meeting guidelines for social distancing and hygiene. Hahn's other three U.S. businesses are all working to help makers of ventilators, as units of the company's assembly and test division: REI in South Carolina, Hahn Automation in Kentucky and Invotec in Ohio. "They are very experienced in building automation for assembly and testing of products like ventilators and respirators," Klaus said.
Branson Ultrasonics, a division of Emerson Electric Co., is experiencing "very strong demand" for its ultrasonic welding equipment, said John Meek, president of assembly technologies for Emerson Assembly Technologies.
"We have existing customers who are adding more equipment, to add lines and capacity," Meek said.
He said Branson also is "getting questions from companies we've never heard of," including some that want to make face masks for their own employees. "We're getting orders for equipment from people who haven't made masks before," Meek said.
Branson does application engineering of ultrasonic welding equipment at its headquarters in Danbury, Conn. The company manufactures the equipment in Mexico.
Ultrasonic welding uses very high-frequency vibration to weld two thermoplastic materials together in less than a second. The resulting weld is generally stronger than the materials that are joined, Meek said, making the ultrasonic technology superior to sewing.
Polypropylene is the largest non-woven material used for medical PPE.
Meek said sewing also can produce holes — a problem for masks that must keep out the coronavirus. And using glue for joining introduces a foreign material, he said.
Ultrasonic welding can be used to join the seams on the edge of a basic flat-fold mask, and to secure the elastic band that goes around your head, Meek said. The 3D-formed masks include a frame, and also benefit from ultrasonic welding. The technology also is used to make N95 respirators and surgical masks.
Meek said ultrasonic welding also plays a key role in other diagnostic medical items, such as saline bags, blood testing kits and catheters, as well as protective gowns and booties.
"Our employees are excited about this because they see where our products are going. And we're helping to save lives, too," Meek said.
Ultrasonic welding plays a key in joining medical parts, and companies in that sector are taking their responsibilities seriously.
Herrmann Ultrasonics Inc. of Bartlett, Ill., supplies equipment for the medical sector, including the personal protective equipment in short supply, food, textiles and other industries.
"Therefore, we are remaining open and operating but with reduced internal staff for the health and well-being of all employees. We will remain open as long as our local government allows and as long as we feel our employees' health is not jeopardized," said Uwe Peregi, executive vice president and general manager.
Herrmann Ultrasonics is committed to customer service, he said. "We have many employees working from home and in the office, readily available for support calls or video conferencing support when necessary," Peregi said.