Utah manufacturer shifts from boat canopies to face shields for health workers

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mike Peterson, president of SugarHouse Industries explains how they are using their industrial cutting and sewing machines to make face masks and face shields, to protect against coronavirus, Thursday, March 26, 2020.

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A Midvale company that makes large awnings and boat covers is shifting its manufacturing to something smaller and potentially life-saving: Face shields to help ward off the coronavirus.

“We’re trying to use what we know — our processes and our materials — to make a product that is in high demand right now,“ said Mike Peterson, president of SugarHouse Industries.

After spending the first part of the week retrofitting the company’s factory floor, Peterson’s employees started mass producing the face shields on Wednesday. He said the company hopes to produce 1,000 or more a day — and already has orders to make 10,000.

The change at SugarHouse Industries reflects the moves manufacturers nationwide have made in response to the coronavirus pandemic. For example, a group of major textile companies — including Hanes and Parkdale Mills America — have joined forces to shift production from clothing to surgical masks.

The inspiration for SugarHouse Industries’ retrofit came when the company’s marketing director, Romy Humphries, heard a news report of hospital workers in Boston having to jerry-rig facial protection from craft store supplies.

When Peterson heard a similar news story Thursday morning, as production was underway, he said, “I was like, ‘We’ve got to make more of these, and we have to get them to the right people.’”

Peterson had started working on a prototype days ago, and asked one of his neighbors, a nurse, “Is this something you guys need or would want?" he said. "She texted back immediately, ‘Yes. We are in desperate need of this, and we are out.’ I thought, ‘OK, we’re on to something.’”

His neighbor took the prototype to her hospital’s purchasing managers, and they placed an order.

The shields are made from marine-grade clear vinyl, which is usually used to make boat canopies. The vinyl is cut by a computer-guided machine into a shape 10 inches high and 13 inches wide.

Elsewhere on the factory floor, sheets of black foam plastic — material used in boat upholstery — are cut into strips 1 and 1/4 inches wide. Double-sided tape is attached to the strips, and the strips are cut into 9-inch long pieces. The pieces are stuck to the vinyl squares, so they will rest against the wearer’s forehead. Then 13-inch strips of elastic are attached, using the same snaps that attach a canopy to a boat, to form a headband.

The shields protect people from splashes and splatters, or the airborne droplets released when someone sneezes or coughs.

SugarHouse Industries is also making reusable face masks, using waterproof canvas — the kind usually used for boat covers — lined with flannel. The machine washable masks, Humphries said, can be used as a protective cover over the N95 masks health care workers use — to help increase the life of the scarce hospital-grade masks. (The company isn’t making N95 masks, which require special materials and approval from federal health agencies.)

Peterson said he has received orders for the face shields and masks from emergency medical technicians, food manufacturers and senior care facilities.

Awning manufacturers in other states have contacted Peterson, and he has emailed them templates so they can start making face shields. “They’re my competition, though they’re in other states,” he said. “But it’s not about competition. It’s about filling a need.”

The face shields are being sold for about $4 each — just enough to cover supplies and labor, Humphries said. “We’re not making money on this,” she said.

The products, though, are keeping Peterson’s 50 employees working, at a time when many of the company’s regular boating customers have been canceling or putting off orders because of the pandemic.

“A week ago, we were trying to decide who we lay off first,” Peterson said. “Now we’re wondering where we can find more people to work longer hours.”

The employees are maintaining recommended social distancing space at the factory — and some wear the masks they’re producing while they work. “We had a meeting this morning in the shop, and it was the biggest circle I’ve ever seen. They’re standing so far apart,” Peterson said.

Peterson said the effort reminded him of his grandfather, Walter Peterson, who started the company in Salt Lake City’s Sugar House neighborhood in 1941 — months before the United States entered World War II.

“His brand new little company started struggling because he couldn’t procure materials to make awnings, so he started selling paint,” Peterson said. “This is kind of full circle now. We’re changing what we’re doing to survive.”