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Companies Step Up to Help Produce Protective Equipment during Pandemic

Innovative thinking and ideas know no limits in the Rocket City, famous for finding solutions to complex problems and managing complicated situations.

The list of needs from the hospitals as they ramp up preparations for a potential surge in COVID-19 cases include surgical and procedural masks, N95 masks, isolation gowns, gloves, face shields, face goggles, ventilators, and swabs. However, it is the “other things” category that breathes life into Huntsville’s smartest minds during this unprecedented medical crisis.

Huntsville Hospital and Crestwood Medical Center are, of course, at the heart of these efforts. The Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce has taken unprecedented steps to coordinate small business and manufacturing efforts to provide additional equipment and supplies to health care providers throughout the community, in the event our area gets overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases.

From the very beginning of the coronavirus crisis, Madison County companies and manufacturers large and small have been participating in these efforts, some adjusting their operations, while others are adapting to needs as they arise, and donating goods and services.

Lucia Cape, senior vice president of Economic Development at the Chamber, is spearheading the manufacturing efforts, maintaining an ongoing list of needed items and locations where businesses can drop off those donations, including the Chamber office on Church Street downtown.

“The manufacturing of these supplies, whether it is something you already manufacture, or something you can modify, the Chamber is running that information down and giving it to Huntsville Hospital and Crestwood to help them coordinate it,” Cape said. “Both hospitals are getting overwhelmed right now with the medical aspects of COVID-19 and this helps keep things in the proper channels.”

The Chamber holds regular calls with manufacturers to get clarification about what items can and can’t be made outside and over their existing supply chain or existing distributor base; and what the procedures are for getting a design approved.

Many of the requests are in reference to face shields, but Cape said several companies responded, offering anything from machine tooling shops that can make metal parts for ventilation carts and shelves, to 3D printers, and shops which specialize in custom injection moldings that can make pretty much anything.

And anything can mean taking on unexpected problems.

One of the things that has arisen from the making of N95 masks, for instance, is that prolonged wearing of the masks has shown to cause some skin breakdown on the bridge of the nose of clinical staff. There may be an opportunity for a device that could cushion the nose and prevent that from happening.

Cape said it is things like that that create unexpected opportunities that might not be on an original list of needs, but for which the Chamber is happy to be a clearinghouse.

“If you have things to sell, donate or have some great ideas, bring them to the Chamber so we can make sure they pass through the right channels and we will connect you directly,” Cape said.

Also, if the hospitals reach a point in which they don’t need some of these items any longer, the Chamber is setting up distribution throughout the community to doctor’s offices and clinics inside and outside our community to help.

Other creative ideas consist of converting CPAPs into ventilators; using plexiglass to make intubation domes; and making ventilator helmets based on a design from a company in Texas that looks like a space suit helmet. One manufacturer on a teleconference call with the Chamber hinted that surely someone in Huntsville can make that.

Study: Ventilator helmets said to be better than traditional face masks.

A couple of companies are assessing whether local doctors and respiratory therapists would embrace that kind of therapy if it were available.

Yet another company is tooling up a sanitization assembly line at Lincoln Mill that can bleach manufacturing parts intended to go into the supply chain.

Another company has offered to repair broken or failing electronic, plastic, or metal equipment.

Companies are also looking at ways to be more efficient, for instance, cutting the filtration material used for making N95 masks differently, and basically getting four masks out of what was originally one.

“We just want to make sure before anyone goes down that track that it is something the hospitals can accept, made by someone from outside the supply chain,” said a spokesperson for the company.

A representative from Huntsville Hospital said he thinks the FDA has waived some of the rules during this pandemic and if they begin running low on anything at some point, emergency authorizations they have already received, give them clear guidance that if reasonable health care professionals and doctors agree these ideas are an acceptable way to do it, then it will be okay.

Many large companies have stepped up to the plate as well.

PPG, which employs 700 people in Huntsville, announced it will donate 50,000 surgical masks and 10,000 N95 masks to several hospitals in the United States including Huntsville Hospital and Crestwood Medical Center.

“PPG is proud to support the medical community as they courageously continue their work on the frontlines of this global pandemic,” said Michael H. McGarry, PPG chairman and chief executive officer. “As One PPG family, we will continue to work with our community partners to provide support and deploy resources wherever possible. We look forward to a brighter future, together.”

Several local companies have donated personal protective equipment (PPE) to help hospitals and medical workers stock up on supplies. Adtran, Aerojet Rocketdyne, ATI, Brown Precision, Bruderer, Dynetics, Facebook, HudsonAlpha, Huntsville Utilities, John Blue Company, Matcor-Matsu, Mazda, Toyota Manufacturing USA, Inc., Mitchell Plastics, Navistar, Polaris, Remington, Turner Construction, TVA, and the UAH College of Nursing have all donated several thousand pairs of reusable protective eyewear to Huntsville Hospital, Madison Hospital and Crestwood Medical Center.

Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama, one of the area’s top employers, has kicked into high gear in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. TMMA is helping curb the spread of the virus by donating masks, safety glasses, shoe/boot covers, gloves, blankets, and cotton swabs to medical personnel.

The automobile engine company is also utilizing its facilities to mass fabricate 3-D printed face shields here in Huntsville.

According to Jeff Samms, COO of the Huntsville Hospital System, Toyota has a nice design for the shields and are now making hundreds of them for the hospital..

“The unknowns for all of us on this is what’s going to affect utilization,” he said. “COVID-19 patients use this isolation equipment at many times the normal rate, so there is an exponential growth in our use of the product, and we don’t know what the demand is going to be.”

Most of the hospitals admit their normal supply chains are broken right now and they are never quite sure what they’re going to get.

Toyota is also offering manufacturing and engineering expertise in support of any company seeking to increase their capacity for making medical supplies and equipment like ventilators and respirators.

The automaker continues to assist in providing essential supplies and emergency relief through local organizations and nonprofits, including significant monetary, “in-kind” donations to the United Way, community food banks, and to other key non-profit organizations geared towards helping those in need.

“Toyota’s core value has always been to contribute to society in meaningful ways beyond providing mobility for our customers,” said Ted Ogawa, incoming CEO, TMNA. “With our plants idled and our dealers focused on servicing customers, we are eager to contribute our expertise and know-how in order to help quickly bring to market the medical supplies and equipment needed to combat the COVID crisis. Our message to the medical equipment community is we are here to help, please utilize our expertise.”

Although currently, the “numbers” – that is the number of infected patients in Madison County hospitals – have not reached the critical level first projected, Chamber President and CEO Chip Cherry said, “We are incredibly grateful for the response from our business community to help our hospitals and first responders stock up on their supplies.

“It has been so good to see boxes of items come in over the last few days. We know these will help in the days to come. We know there is strength in numbers, and we and our members are committed to getting through this together.”

 

 

Q&A with Sen. Doug Jones: Tariffs and Global Trade

 

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) recently sat down with the Huntsville Business Journal and discussed several issues important to our state and nation. This is the third installment of five reports from the interview. Today’s topic is international trade and tariffs.

HBJ: Let’s talk about Alabama and where it fits in global trade.

Sen. Jones: Alabama is an exporting state. You know, after NAFTA came into being, Alabama got hurt pretty bad. But, we’ve done such an amazing job of adapting and a part of that was with the automobile manufacturers that started coming into the state.

Sen. Jones: “Twenty-five percent tariffs on automobiles would be devastating and just not functional.” (Photo/Steve Babin)

But, Alabama really has got partners all over the world. It’s amazing what we export now.

It’s an exporting state. We need to make sure that with our trading partners, that we have good agreements with them … That’s been a challenge, I think, over the last couple of years.

HBJ: Tell me about the tariffs and what industries are affected.

Sen. Jones: You know, there are two different things.

First of all, you’ve got tariffs that are proposed for automobiles. Fortunately, we’ve got a trade agreement with Japan now. So, Toyota and Honda are fairly safe. But, Mercedes has still got a potential issue out there; Hyundai still has potential issues out there.

Twenty-five percent tariffs on automobiles would be devastating and just not functional. The president has done this under some guise of national security but yet he won’t release the report that the Commerce Department did to determine whether or not they’re a national security threat.

Throughout this, several senators in a bipartisan way have been working with me: Sen. (Lamar) Alexander (R) from Tennessee, Sen. (Rob) Portman (R) from Ohio.

We’ve had different bills pending to try to get at the bottom of these automobile tariffs. In fact, this past year, Sen. (Pat) Toomey (R-Pa.) and I had an amendment in the budget process, the appropriations process, whereby the administration was required to release that to us by the middle of January.

Of course, they have not done that. So, we still don’t know what that is.

What we’ve seen is steel and aluminum imports have caused the cost of goods and services to go up. That was a boom for Alabama steelmakers for a little bit, but now with prices that way, everybody’s feeling some pain.

The other thing: the retaliatory tariffs have been what’s been devastating to farmers. When China started cutting off soybeans and other products, it really has affected so many farmers in this state.

Now, we have a first step agreement with China. I think the jury is still out as to whether or not that’s really going to be a favorable deal, or one that keeps the status quo, which is not that good.

I’d like to think it’s going to be a good deal ultimately for folks, but there’s still another deal yet to be had.

What I’m seeing right now is that we are now getting into the political dynamics with trade and everything is just kind of on hold until after the election.

The president has quit beating the trade “drums” as loud as he gets closer and closer to November.

HBJ: So, the tariffs affect not only steel, but agricultural exports, as well?

Sen. Jones: Yep, absolutely. They’ve had serious issues with soybeans, but it’s affected agriculture across the board.

Sen. Jones: “My biggest problem with the way the administration has handled trade is that we’ve gone it alone.” (Photo/Steve Babin)

If you talk to the folks down in the Port of Mobile, they will tell you the exports are down so much in agricultural goods. And hopefully, that’s going to come back.

And we’ve got issues down in Mobile, too with Airbus. The president is still talking about tariffs on exports, imports from Europe which could affect the Airbus and the airplane industry down there.

We’ve had to go through and seek exemptions for – I can’t tell you know how many companies. And we’ve been pretty successful at it in the office, where we’ve been able to carve out exemptions, but that’s just not the way to run trade.

When you announce these big policies and then you start chipping away, what that means is that the administration is picking winners and losers in the industry. And that’s just not good.

We need to try to break down some barriers and try to make sure we’ve got good trade, deal with countries like China, but do it in a fair way.

My biggest problem with the way the administration has handled trade is that we’ve gone it alone.

We started kicking all of our friends in the shins, we started going after Canada, we started going after Europe, we started going after China. We ended up going at China alone when we could have done some deals with our allies and then all gone in there together, because now they’re all getting separate deals.

I think we could have gotten a better deal had we all worked together.

Now having said all that, I voted for the United States-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) deal. I think that’s a pretty good deal for Alabama. The automobile dealers had a little bit of question about it all, but overall I think updating NAFTA was a good thing. And it was something that needed to be done.

What I think is really good about that though, that this deal is that once it got to the House of Representatives, the House made it better than what it was.

They made it better in the form of labor protections and in environmental protections. Much better than what the president sent over there; that’s what got it across the finish line, was the House of Representatives making it better.

(Monday: Sen. Jones discusses defense spending and border security)

Region’s Job Outlook Demands an Increase in the Supply of Workers

We need more people singing “Sweet Home Alabama!”

That is the overarching conclusion from the North Alabama Region Labor Market Analysis commissioned by Huntsville’s Launch 2035, the strategic regional partnership between business and elected officials in Limestone, Madison, and Morgan counties.

How many more people?

How about some 25,000 new jobs to be filled by 2023?

To answer that challenge, Launch 2035 is rethinking and re-imagining North Alabama’s regional economy over the next 20 years.

Conducted by Deloitte, the assessment had six objectives: provide a snapshot of the overall supply and demand of the North Alabama labor market; identify and assess talent and potential talent/skills demand and trends; capture insights from regional employers concerning the skill sets they will need; secure guidance concerning growth projections by worker type and skill sets; provide Launch 2035 with an understanding of the perceived quality of the workforce pipeline supplied by the region’s higher education; and provide examples of strategies to address anticipated labor shortages.

While North Alabama’s unemployment rate stands at 2.6 percent compared to the national rate of 3.7 percent, the study showed that there won’t be enough workers to fill those jobs that are on the horizon.

The region has seen $6.7 billion in capital investment over the past five years and added 14,000 jobs. Huntsville’s Metropolitan Statistical Area has the highest concentration of engineering talent; and the regional GDP increased 4.9 percent versus the national GDP growth of 3.1 percent.

North Alabama is a leader in innovation and has the highest concentration of advanced research and development capabilities in the region. The quality of life and booming economy are among the best in the nation and due to the large federal presence and ecosystem of federal contractors in North Alabama, the area can weather a recession more favorably than other communities.

The key findings of the report however, come down to the basic economic principle of supply and demand.

In fact, according to the findings, jobs will outpace the work force in key skill areas, specifically in the areas of cyber, IT, engineering and production.

The need for talent is rapidly evolving, however, despite such training programs as Toyota’s Federation of Advanced Manufacturing Education program, there are not enough of these types of programs to keep up with the need.

The organic job pipeline is slowly improving as graduates from two-year programs are finding alternatives to four-year colleges; but a tight labor market has led to “poaching” the most in-demand talent using the allure of higher wages.

While millennials value non-wage related benefits more than past workers, North Alabama has not yet reached its potential in attracting national talent, and must address housing needs in order to support and stimulate the needed increase in inbound migration to North Alabama.

According to Claire Aiello, vice president of marketing and communications at the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce, seeing is believing.

Chamber CEO/President Chip Cherry: “Recruitment is an ongoing exercise”

“Once people get here, they are sold,” she said. “They see how affordable it is, how beautiful it is, the warm climate, an easy commute in and out of the city, the people are friendly.

“Companies admit that even if they get resistance from potential recruits who don’t know anything about Alabama, once they get here – they get it. They understand.”

Chip Cherry, president and CEO of the Chamber, said leaders from the three counties are working on a long-term strategy to address ways to increase awareness about what a desirable region this is for potential workers from other parts of the country.

“There have been myriad things happening for a while,” Cherry said. “When we did the evaluation and economic impact model for Polaris and some others, we pulled down the area by ZIP code for that particular model and that site, and we were within a half a percent of where our projections were for the number of people from Morgan County who will come over and work at that site.

“So, we have some pretty good models … and recruitment is an ongoing exercise. In Huntsville, about 60 percent of our portfolio is existing companies considering expansion, so we will continue to work with those companies to help them grow.

“The challenge is making sure we secure the labor workforce from other parts of the country, to bring them here so we can continue that growth going forward.”

That challenge – to bring the three counties together to create a strategy for long-term success is being spearheaded by Launch 2035. In the coming weeks and months, they will be coordinating among the Chambers of Commerce, business leaders and city officials from the three-county area to develop an economic and image strategy that addresses these problems.

“We are them. They are us,” said Cherry about Launch 2035. “At the end of the day, we want to create a perception of what can happen in North Alabama, and to find a way to effectively communicate that to people who don’t know anything about how dynamic our region is.”

Delegation from North Alabama meets with international partners in Japan

The delegation from the city, county and state visit Toyota officials. The group later met with Mazda and GE Aviation officials and will take part in the Southeast U.S./Japan Association meeting this week.

 

A delegation from Huntsville, Madison County and the state is visiting Japan this week to further strengthen the area’s ties with its international partners.

The team includes elected officials, Chamber of Commerce leaders and company representatives of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama. On Monday, the team visited Toyota City and met with members of the Executive Team for Toyota USA.

“We have been traveling to Japan for many years, and we are pleased to be able to meet again with our Toyota partners in their home country,” said Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle. “This provides us with the opportunity to tour their plants and facilities and to visit with our new partners at Mazda.”

The group also toured the Toyota Motomachi Plant and Toyota Kaikan Museum, seeing some of the company’s newest automotive technologies and smart cars.

Tuesday, the delegation met with leaders of Mazda.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of relationships in doing business with our overseas partners,” Battle said. “If we had not already established a long-standing collaborative relationship with Toyota, we would not have landed the new Mazda-Toyota plant.

“These commitments don’t just happen in 15-minute meetings or phone calls. There is a long process of communication, listening, and work toward mutual respect before we develop a trusted business relationship.”

Mazda-Toyota Manufacturing U.S.A. is building an automotive plant in the Huntsville city limits of Limestone County. The two companies will build the facility on 2,400 acres near Interstates 65 and 565. The plant will be able to produce 300,000 cars annually and employ about 4,000 people.

“These meetings in Japan with the Mazda and Toyota corporations have created an even greater sense of understanding of the partnership and commitment that has been created with two of the world’s most renowned automakers, while engineering, road design and site prep continues on more than 2,000 acres locally,” said Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong. “It is truly exciting to be one of so many working together at so many levels to ensure the success of the largest economic development projects in the history of the state of Alabama. This project will be a redefining moment for North Alabama.”

Production will be divided evenly into two lines for each company to produce Mazda’s crossover and the Toyota Corolla. Operations are expected to begin in 2021.

“The plant will bring thousands of jobs to our area,” said Chip Cherry, president and CEO of the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber. “We secured this new plant because of a trusted relationship we have built over many years with our Japanese partners. In fact, much of it goes back to Toyota’s engine plant locating in Huntsville nearly two decades ago and becoming a true community partner.”

Members of the North Alabama delegation will also meet with GE Aviation and NGS Advanced Fibers, their Japanese partner in developing the silicon carbide for ceramic matrix composites. NGS is in Toyama, where the delegation will tour the sister facility to the one being built in Huntsville. These plants are the only two in the world to mass produce silicon carbide and ceramic matrix composite materials.

The delegation will also attend this week’s annual meeting of the Southeast U.S./Japan Association in Tokyo.

The group includes Cherry; Battle; Strong; Greg Canfield, Alabama Department of Commerce; Hollie Pegg, Alabama Department of Commerce; Madison Mayor Paul Finley; Limestone County District 3 Commissioner Jason Black;   Lucia Cape, Huntsville/Madison County Chamber senior vice president of Economic Development, Industry Relations & Workforce; 2018 Chair-Elect Huntsville/Madison County Chamber Kim Lewis; Rick Tucker, executive director, Port of Huntsville; Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama President David Fernandes; Kim Ogle, corporate communications, Toyota Motor North America.