When Bright View Technologies in Durham decided in March to make face shields for medical workers and others during COVID-19, the manufacturer of highly engineered optical components had no problem with access to ultra-clear plastic.
But the company needed help connecting to its first buyer ― the state of North Carolina. In March, face shields were high on the state’s list of critical personal protective equipment (PPE) needed by first responders and hospital personnel dealing with the pandemic.
On March 23, Harry Swendsen of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina (EDPNC) connected Bright View to contacts at North Carolina Emergency Management, a division of the state Department of Public Safety that had mobilized to quickly identify PPE sources for the state.
Since getting its first state order three days later, Bright View has delivered 300,000 disposable face shields to North Carolina with another 50,000 to ship by the end of May, said Jennifer Aspell, president of Bright View.
“I think Harry’s ability to help us make connections for this project was immensely valuable,” Aspell said. “His list of resources really kicked the project up.”
Swendsen is part of the EDPNC’s existing industry support team, which has been helping North Carolina manufacturers pivoting to PPE production find the right resources.
“Bright View had a great outcome,” Swendsen said. “But another big part of their story is how they gave people who lost work during the pandemic income as independent contractors assembling the shields.”
The Pivot to PPE
Bright View, founded in 2002, provides highly engineered optical components for LED-based applications ― ranging from lighting to backlit displays to 3D sensing used in autonomous vehicles.
Aspell arrived at Bright View in 2010, after it was acquired by Virginia-based Tredegar, whose personal care subsidiary makes elastic films and fabrics for use in baby diapers and other personal hygiene products.
“We use ultra-clear plastics in our business,” Aspell said of Bright View’s work, “but we put little micro-lenses on them. The optical grade plastic acts as a base layer, and we build these microstructures on top of the piece.”
“In March,” Aspell recalled, “so many businesses were trying to make PPE because of the great need. And there were these horrible stories coming from places like New York City, where it was just heartbreaking to see what health-care workers had to deal with.”
Other companies wanting to produce face shields were even asking Bright View to sell them some of its plastic, which Bright View sources from Georgia.
On March 21, a Saturday, one of Aspell’s own engineers reached out to her. “He sent me an email and said, ‘We want to do something to help our community. We have optical-grade plastic. We have equipment that can convert that plastic. Is there something we can do to make face shields?’ ”
“By Monday, the 23rd, we had a prototype,” she said.
Full Speed Ahead
The Bright View team had optical-grade plastic. They turned to sister company Tredegar Personal Care for the elastic laminate in the shield’s one-size-fits-all head strap. Bright View sourced headband foam from Lumberton, N.C.-based Rempac Foam. By early April, an independent lab had certified the face shield for occupational face and eye protection, Aspell said.
Bright View also needed to recruit people to assemble the shields. So they hired 30 independent contractors for home assembly, with strong preference given to anyone who had lost jobs or work hours because of COVID-19-related closures. Bright View relied on its own employees to spread the word.
“I go to church with one of the engineers at Bright View and got an email from him about the face shield work,” said George Evans, a barber who began assembling the shields after closing his Community Barber Shop in Roxboro for two months during the state-ordered shutdown. “It has been very meaningful. I have bills to pay.”
Bright View set up curbside pickup at its plant for contractors getting kits that can make 500 to 5,000 shields. “We have them take health surveys and wear gloves and masks for home assembly,” Aspell said. “The shields have to come back to us in three days. They go through quality inspection before heading into our inventory for shipping.”
Bright View will fulfill its state orders soon. But the company is still marketing its disposable face shields, which are durable enough for a single user to easily clean and reuse repeatedly, Aspell said.
“I think we’ll be making face shields for a while,” Aspell said. “As businesses open up, having employees wear a face shield is one way to help protect their eyes, nose, and mouth from someone else’s cough or sneeze. I can see them for retail stores, in schools, in coffee shops, the hospitality industry. Anywhere where seeing someone’s face, their smile, is important.”
If your company needs a referral to resources that can support your efforts to pivot to PPE, please contact the EDPNC regional manager serving your area.
If your company can sell or donate PPE or other critical supplies to North Carolina, please complete the state’s online COVID-19 procurement form to be considered.