Skip to main content
Case Study

How Southco and John Deere Pivoted to Make PPE and Make a Difference

As the COVID-19 pandemic wreaks havoc on public health and the global economy, the medical community in the U.S. has faced historic challenges with basic supplies. One of the critical – and often inspiring – responses to this acute need has come from manufacturing companies that have ramped up production of medical equipment for hospitals and healthcare workers. Recent Manufacturers Alliance polling revealed the breadth of contributions from the industry despite supply chain shocks, with critical items ranging from face shields and protective gear to component parts for respirators, and more.

To understand how members are able to identify, pivot, and deliver against the medical equipment needs of their customers and communities, we interviewed two leaders about their company’s efforts. Al Frattarola, Global Director of Engineering & Technology at Southco, and Daniel Bernick, Manager of Public Relations at John Deere, shared how their companies and departments responded with speed and agility to support healthcare workers and how employees are continuing to meet the moment. Excerpts follow.

Why was it important for your company to support the medical industry?

Daniel Bernick (DB): John Deere factory managers and other leaders in each factory location have been in constant communication with their respective healthcare providers. During these conversations, the healthcare professionals provided a list of the personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to support their front-line healthcare workers.

These individuals are our neighbors, friends, and family members; we know each other well. We knew we needed to do more to help the true heroes in this fight. These personal connections and conversations led to quick and positive action! 

We began producing protective face shields to be delivered to 16 U.S. Deere factories in eight states as well as the company’s U.S. Deere-Hitachi factory for local distribution to help meet the immediate needs of healthcare workers in those communities.

The hospitals and healthcare agencies in the communities where our employees work need PPE to protect their healthcare workers. Since some of our factories are located in smaller towns, they may not be getting the required PPE that larger towns may get, and we are helping them with this critical need.

Al Frattarola (AF): Southco makes engineered access hardware for virtually every industry, and medical is a big market for us. It is important for Southco to support our current medical customers and the local medical community during the pandemic, simply because this is part of our culture and who we are. We have a customer-first culture at Southco. We have responded to customers who are making equipment for the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, and we have also collaborated with the local community via universities and hospitals to help with COVID-19 pandemic solutions. Supporting the global community and the immediate communities where our facilities are located is vitally important.

How did the decision to help the medical community unfold? Who were key participants in that decision-making process?

DB: Throughout the coronavirus pandemic we have been talking with Iowa and Illinois government officials and local health professionals. These discussions, coupled with discussions among a broad range of Deere leaders, led us to act.

John Deere teams have done an incredible job acquiring material to support this initiative, and our employees have been highly engaged in this process by providing their manufacturing expertise, innovation, and creativity to make the products. It has been an all-hands-on-deck approach, and it has been amazing to see our employees step up and take quick action to make this happen.

This has required support from many internal functional areas in our company, including, but not limited to, manufacturing, supply management, logistics, legal, and public affairs. 

John Deere’s production and maintenance employees have played an integral part in making this happen. They have created innovative processes to manufacture the material, are assembling the final products, and are shipping the face shields to healthcare providers.

The company and the UAW have been working closely together to make this happen, and the UAW has been a great partner throughout this crisis.

AF: Southco’s parent company Touchpoint, Inc., along with our sister companies, are in the medical supply business, so we are already actively working in the industry. Since these resources are readily available to us, we contacted local universities close to our facilities to learn what programs they were working on to support local hospitals and asked how we could help. We also reached out to our medical customers to understand how we could best support them during this challenging time.

How have employees reacted to these efforts?

DB: John Deere employees have been extremely supportive and proud of this initiative. This has been a collaborative effort among many employees. Our production and maintenance employees and our salary staff have stepped up to take this on. Our employees wanted to do more, and this is an example of how Deere employees are making a difference in their local communities. 

AF: Some of the decisions to produce equipment for the medical industry were communicated from the top-down, with our leadership team spreading the message to our employees to work on certain projects. Some of the efforts were also bottom-up, where some of our engineers working from home joined local community efforts to 3D print and supply parts to the medical industry, and so we joined in supporting those efforts as well. Employees have been extremely supportive and are proud to be involved in these efforts. They feel they are making a difference in the midst of this crisis.

What kind of work does the facility that is producing medical equipment normally do?

DB: The face shields are being produced at the John Deere Seeding Group in Moline, Illinois. The factory is currently on a routine seasonal shutdown, but normally manufactures planting equipment and precision agricultural solutions for a global customer base.

AF: Our Concordville, Pennsylvania facility normally produces access hardware including glove box latches and center console latches for the automotive industry. We also manufacture and sell latches to many other industries, like boating and industrial equipment. Southco’s Concordville facility specialized in plastic injection molding and typically runs 24 hours a day, five days a week. We have staff who run automatic machinery as well as manual machinery, so it was not a big adjustment for them to switch over to build medical equipment for our sister company Touchpoint Medical, which designs and builds medical carts.

How have the facilities and machines been repurposed or adapted to make supplies for the medical industry? How long did this take?

DB: We’ve been working on this project since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Employees have been working to get materials and create efficient ways to complete and ship the face shields. Acquisition of materials to build the face shields and delivery are the key elements.

The company is using an open-source design from the University of Wisconsin-Madison for the project and leveraging the expertise, skills, and innovation of its employee base.

AF: Southco has an expansive engineering and supply chain group, which means we can respond very quickly to situations as they occur. In the case of our Rochester plant, we were able to very quickly add capacity since we build our own assembly equipment. We build our own production machines and fixtures at Southco and fabricate them in-house, so we can respond very quickly to a spike in the demand. For example, we were able to adjust our operations to produce a display mounting arm that is used on ventilators manufactured by one of our big customers.

What is the expected timeline to deliver products?

DB: Fortunately, ramping up to build face shields did not require significant training or transition. Currently, about 50 employees are assembling the face shields at John Deere Seeding.

The first delivery took place on April 8, and we’ve been continually shipping face shields ever since. To date, we’ve produced and delivered more than 190,000 face shields, with plans to produce a total of more than 400,000 face shields. Each John Deere factory has a point of contact who is responsible for assessing the need for the face shields in their area and ensuring delivery.

AF: Timelines, of course, are compressed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Our medical customers are expediting orders as a result, and we are committed to meeting this demand. We were able to add people and train them, in addition to the usual workers on these lines. Regarding volunteer work, our people are chipping in and learning how to Support the needs of the local community. One example of this is making face shields for local hospitals. Some of our engineers are making these at home and others are helping by 3D printing the components in our facilities. In the United Kingdom, our Worcester facility, has prepared complete face shield kits and have made them available in high volumes for customers working in other front-line industries.

Did the shift in production require identifying new materials and new suppliers? How did the supply chain organization identify that given the disruptions in the supply chain over the last several months?

DB: Our supply management professionals searched for and found new sources to acquire materials. Our team members have been able to execute in a day processes that normally take months. It has been incredible and truly inspiring to see this in action.  

John Deere’s Supply Management teams have done an incredible job finding and establishing new partnerships with a supply base we typically do not use. 

AF: Southco can quickly respond to the shift in production because we are able to work with our suppliers to expand capacity and increase their capacity. In situations where that is not possible, we can very quickly find other existing or new suppliers that can ramp up quickly. We have a global supply chain team with a global reach, and we are able to leverage that in any part of the world. We build our own tools and we buy raw materials, so in many cases, we can control a spike in demand and respond very quickly.

How long does your company anticipate it will continue its volunteer efforts?

DB: We will build as many face shields as possible. Right now, we have enough materials to produce more than 400,000 total face shields.

We’ve been supporting our employees and local communities first, then working closely with state and national officials to determine where additional face shields are most needed. 

There is no charge for the face shields. We are donating the shields to help front-line healthcare workers.

AF: In the case of medical equipment, Southco already produces a wide range of products that are used in the medical industry and will continue to do so. We will continue our volunteer efforts by helping to supply face shields and some donated medical carts to hospitals in our local communities as long as the pandemic lasts.

What guidance would you give manufacturing leaders looking to respond similarly?

DB: Look for ways you might lend support and expertise, then pursue opportunities that make sense for your organization and employees. This has been an extremely gratifying and worthwhile initiative for John Deere and its employees.

John Deere would like to thank all the heath care and first-responder professionals who are doing incredible work to help us all make it through this crisis. After hearing of their needs, we knew we had to use our resources to help protect and to support them. The desire of our employees to help the local community healthcare professionals has been truly inspiring.  

AF: My advice to other manufacturing leaders would be to look for opportunities by way of your employees and also by way of local universities and hospitals, and ask how you can help. This can be accomplished by donation of time, through your manufacturing capabilities or a financial donation. I would reach out locally to see what you can do. I would also look to efforts that are being driven at a national level and reach out to local government regarding opportunities for local company involvement.