Right before COVID- 19 hit, Vista-headquartered Solatube International Inc., a daylight and ventilation systems manufacturing company with revenue of roughly $50 million in 2018 and growth of 4.5% in 2019, was involved in an active program to expand into new markets and stimulate new opportunities.
At the top of 2020, it had just gone into production with its traditional skylights, tailored to the residential retrofit market. And, after opening stores in Orange County and Los Angeles in 2018 and 2019 and recently launching its Solatube Home franchise program, it had also been recruiting potential franchisees in Arizona and Southern California.
But four weeks ago, after the state implemented a mandatory shelter-in-place order, Solatube, founded in 1991 and with about 160 local employees, decided to alter its course of action. According to President Bob Westfall, that’s when it began making face shields for healthcare workers.
Using stocked plastic sheets, a pattern found online and an automated in-house plastic-cutting machine called the CNC, Westfall said the company has donated about 5,000 face shields to San Diego County hospitals as well as medical facilities in the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, New York City, among other high-need areas around the country.
It all started as a potential collaboration with an L.A.-based architecture firm, said Westfall.
“Three weeks ago, a sales rep in the Los Angeles area was working with an architectural firm and they started making face shields using a 3D printer to make the headbands, but had no access to get the actual face shield, which is the clear panel that goes over the face,” said Westfall. “At that time, there was a major shortage of the plastic needed to make the shield. But we actually had some of that in stock. So, we converted our material, which we use to make one of our products, with the intent of working with the architecture group by providing it to them.”
Full Scale Production
But what Westfall and his team quickly figured out was that there was a design available online that worked well with Solatube’s equipment and would allow them to speed up the process by making a completed face shield product themselves, band and all. In the interest of time and to get them in the hands of those who need them the most as quickly as possible, Westfall said he and his team went into full scale production mode to make as many shields as they could as quickly as they could.
Within three days, Solatube had delivered face shields by the bulk load to several healthcare facilities in San Diego, including 500 to Tri-City Medical Center in Oceanside, among others. He adds that he believes the face shields are recyclable and that, most importantly, hospitals are reporting back that they like the shields because they are easy to clean and re-usable.
“We do not use a foam headband,” he said, “which the hospital reported is difficult to disinfect.”
For Westfall, while he is aware Solatube can’t handle the production of millions of shields – much like Apple, Ford and Nike, which are also filling the void by making them – it was important to fulfill the immediate need for personal protective equipment for essential workers, albeit producing a smaller number.
“Some organizations should have the capacity to make these in the millions,” he said, “but larger organizations have more bureaucracy in working through the supply chain to get these out to everyone. For us, our thought was, let that happen for the long-term solution, but, for the immediate need, we can turn on a dime and get these out. We can fill the immediate gap until bigger numbers get out. So, our numbers may not be big, but they are going to the high need areas, where they need them the most right this minute.”
Miro Copic, marketing professor at San Diego State University, said any amount of personal protective equipment that can be manufactured and donated to frontline workers helps. He also said the shift shows how innovative Solatube can be as a company.
“Any amount is more than appreciated,” he said. “Most hospitals are still using masks that cover the mouth and nose and using the face shield on top of that extends the lifeline substantially. So those things that are in very short supply all of a sudden get an extension of life while more supply is being delivered. And, if these shields are being donated, it means there are more dollars that can be used to buy things that are important to save lives, like ventilators and other PPE they have to wear while testing these patients. It is a community benefit and a great commitment and shows the company can be innovative. Taking what they do and reapplying it in a way that can help society is a win for the company.”
For Solatube, making face shields isn’t a necessity, it’s a calling, said Westfall.
Despite most industries getting hit by the pandemic, he said Solatube is still making some revenue through its commercial sector, which includes schools and healthcare facilities, as well as through its international business, for which it is still shipping products to other parts of the world that haven’t been as affected by COVID-19. He also said, because of recent rains in San Diego, the company has been busy lately replacing skylights in residential homes, although the installation business in California has been affected the most.
Mandatory PPE for Installers
Westfall said its employees took a pay reduction across the board and the company hopes to take advantage of the Payment Protection Program if approved. He also said, once Solatube is able to provide as many more healthcare workers with the face shields as possible, it will make the product a mandatory part of its own dealers and installers’ PPE, who already wear facemasks, booties and gloves as well as follow social distancing guidelines. Westfall added that, as a third and final priority, Solatube has also started discussions about selling the face shields down the line, probably for around $10-$20 a piece.
Still Recruiting Franchisees
Although the current plastic supply at the warehouse is running out, Westfall said Solatube was recently able to secure a shipment from China, which is coming in through air freight and boat, to make even more shields. He also said, despite the crisis, the company is still recruiting franchisees in hopes of helping the economy bounce back when all is said and done.
“It may be the right opportunity for people that are displaced or out of a job to now consider opening their own business,” he said. “It’s a pretty exciting program and we have a great business model for them to do that.”