By Richard Bienstock
The MI industry, like almost all business during this time of self-quarantine and enforced stay-at-home orders, is in virtual shutdown mode, at least from a production standpoint. There are, however, numerous companies whose factories continue to operate—and it’s not because the production of instruments, strings, straps, and other gear and equipment fall under the guise of essential services (even if we musicians, admittedly, might sometimes feel otherwise).
Rather, a range of manufacturers, from industry heavyweights like Ernie Ball and D’Addario to smaller companies like Thalia Capos in Pleasant Hill, California, and Gator Cases in Tampa, Florida, have been taking this moment of pause as an opportunity to retool their businesses—and their factories—to produce goods to help fight COVID-19.
“It’s a way I felt that we could really support the community that has always supported us,” says Ernie Ball CEO Brian Ball. Over the past weeks, the company’s Coachella, California, factory has pivoted from producing guitar strings, straps, and other accessories (“we normally make upwards of 300,000 parts a day there,” according to Ball) to manufacturing two-ply, 100% cotton, machine-washable protective masks for local workers and citizens. “We’ve been doing about 500 a day, and our goal right now is to get to 25,000 masks distributed by the end of April,” Ball says.
So how have they’ve been doing it?
“We make a lot of guitar straps in Coachella, and have a pretty robust accessories division,” he continues. “So we already had the sewing equipment; we just needed more of it, and also more employees that had some kind of a background in sewing. It was really the fabric and the elastic and some of the other materials that posed the main hurdle in transforming our existing factory into a mask-manufacturing center. But it’s not super challenging making masks—the challenge is the scale and speed at which we’re doing it.”
That challenge is compounded by the fact that, at present, the Coachella factory is operating on a shoestring. “We have between five and seven people working, and they’re split between a couple of shifts,” Ball says. “We are an essential manufacturer, but it’s super limited operation.”
As of the time of this interview, Ball says that 100% of the masks have been given away as free donations. “The first week of production, the masks went to Martha’s Village, which benefits homeless charities in the area,” Ball says. “We also donated masks to farm workers and migrant workers. Next they’re going to grocery workers and additional farm workers.” He also says Ernie Ball is working on a microsite that will allow residents of the Coachella Valley and nearby communities to “sign up and enter their address, and we’ll ship them a mask, free of charge.”
For Ball, this production pivot is something of a calling. “I’ve had incredible role models my whole life—my dad, my grandpa, people that have been really effective at taking a bad situation and figuring out how to make it a good one,” he says. “It’s the ethos of our family and our business. So right now it’s our duty to use the equipment that we have to help our community.”
Long Island, New York-based D’Addario is another major string manufacturer that has turned its attention toward the COVID-19 fight. But in D’Addario’s case, the company’s engineering team, led by CIO Jim D’Addario, devised a way to fabricate face shields out of the clear film from its Evans G2 drumheads.
“I was sitting at dinner with my wife and my daughter and we were talking about what we could do to help, because our governor [Andrew Cuomo] put out a plea for New York manufacturers to consider making PPE,” D’Addario recalls. “Face shields,” he continues, “require FDA Class One medical device approval, and as a company we’ve already been approved for that for our Dynatomy [VariGrip] hand exercisers, which are marketed to the physical therapy and sports industries. So we checked with the FDA and they said, ‘Well, if you had the capability to make shields, we’ll give you an approval for that product right away.’”
The approval was granted, and after ordering a few shields to study what was involved in their construction, the D’Addario team determined the materials were almost exactly the same as the film used in the company’s Evans G2 drumheads. “We knew we had that core ingredient,” D’Addario says, “so we went in with a couple of our best engineers and best operations guys and a few other people and we started looking at how we could repurpose the [Farmingdale, Long Island] plant.”
At the time of this conversation, the company was in the midst of ramping up production. “We should be able to have one shift with about 16 people running in about a week,” D’Addario says. “And then the following week we’re going to add the second and third shifts. I’m hoping we can make 40,000 shields a day.”
D’Addario says the initial intent behind producing face shields was to help to satisfy New York’s overwhelming demand, given how hard the state, and in particular the city, has been hit by the virus. But, he adds, “We’ve gotten calls from all over the country and we’re booking orders like crazy. And we want to make sure that the first responders, these people that are putting their lives at risk to take care of those that are sick, get the right protection first. The moment that we don’t see any big orders from healthcare institutions coming in, we’ll add the shields to our website and on Amazon, and we’ll sell to consumers.”
Chris Bradley, the cofounder and CEO of high-end accessories company Thalia Capos, says he initially looked into producing face shields as well. But he switched his focus to intubation boxes—a contraption that provides protection between medical staff and known or suspected COVID-19 patients when performing endotracheal intubation—following a discussion with a friend who works as an emergency room doctor. “He told me that the one thing that everybody in his emergency department is scared to death of is having to intubate somebody,” Bradley recalls. “So I found these boxes that are coming out of Taiwan, and I immediately downloaded the open source instructions and we built one. We quickly realized, ‘Hey, we could make this thing better and more functional for doctors.’”
Intubation boxes might not seem like an easy pivot for a company known for producing designer picks, straps, capos, phone cases, and other accessories, but, Bradley says, “In our operation we do a lot of work with exotic wooden shell. So we have six high-end laser cutters, like Mercedes-Benz-level cutters with really high precision, and we also cut acrylic and other plastics for point-of-sale displays and other things. So we already knew how to work with those materials.”
His goal with the intubation boxes, he continues, “was to redesign the product so that we could very efficiently make them in our factory. And so, with a few mods and some tweaks here and there and some feedback from some of the doctors at UC Davis and others, we came up with a new design. Then I brought the team back and we hit the gas pedal. And we’ve been pumping out 70 to 80 of these a day for the past couple of weeks.”
The acrylic aerosol intubation boxes sell for $175. “Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of margin and they’re challenging to ship,” Bradley says. “But we have maybe a couple hundred that have been purchased and an equal number that have been sponsored or donated [via Thalia’s website].”
And they’re going all over the world. “We’ve shipped them to Ghana, we’ve shipped them to Peru . . . if you look at the map that we just put on our website, you can see all the locations where we’re shipping these boxes,” Bradley says. “It basically looks like the hotspot map.”
“In the end,” he continues, “we’re not some kind of healthcare company, we’re just doing what we can to help. When this is over, we’ll go back to making guitar accessories. But right now, this is what we do.”
Down in Florida, Gator, which manufactures cases and bag solutions for guitars and a variety of other instruments and equipment, has also joined the COVID-19 fight. Like Ernie Ball, the company is now dedicated to producing protective masks.
“A little over two years ago we bought Levy’s Leathers, and so we make all sorts of sewn goods, mostly guitar straps, up in Nova Scotia, Canada,” explains CEO Crystal Morris, who co-founded the company with her father, Jerry Freed, 20 years ago. “When the shutdowns started to happen in early March, the news was constantly talking about how there was a shortage of masks and other protective equipment for medical staff. And so I was watching these stories and I said, ‘We don’t need to make more guitar straps right now. Nobody wants a guitar strap. But a lot of people want a mask.’ It gave us a mission to rally around.”
And rally Gator did. The company crafted a three-layer mask that not only sports an interior pocket for replaceable filters, but also, with music-themed designs featuring guitars and other images, looks good to boot. “As much as the number-one mission is obviously safety, we figured, ‘Why not make them look cool?’” Morris says. “It’s a way to say, ‘Hey, I’m a musician,’ or ‘I love music, and this is what I’m doing to help.’”
The response, Morris says, has been overwhelming. “Our initial plan was to make 500 masks and see how it goes. And in the first three days we sold 6,000.”
The music-themed masks, she continues, “Sold out right away, but we have some new patterns that we’re working on that should be available in about a week or so.” The updated goal, she says, “is to make at least 20,000 masks. So we have a long way to go.”
Furthermore, she says, “We made the commitment that any profits will go back into producing more masks that we can give away. Because it’s important to stress that this isn’t the time to be thinking about getting ahead financially. It’s the time to be thinking about how to help others.”
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And Morris is thankful to be in a position where she is able to offer that help. “We happened to have a resource available,” she says. “It’s just awesome that this was something we at Gator could all dive into and be successful at and feel good about. Because right now there’s just so much uncertainty in the world. You’re not even quite sure what to do because you don’t know what tomorrow will look like.”
It’s a point that Jim D’Addario drives home. “I’ve been through a lot of things in 70 years, but I never dreamed of going through something like this,” he says. “It’s crazy.”
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