Equipment Manufacturers Shift Production Priorities During COVID-19 Pandemic

Deere & Co. and Vermeer are examples of companies that are currently focused on manufacturing PPE for health care workers

Equipment Manufacturers Shift Production Priorities During COVID-19 Pandemic

Jose Martinez works on a Deere & Company production line assembling protective face shields for healthcare workers.

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The coronavirus pandemic has altered operations for all businesses. For heavy-equipment manufacturers part of the change has been in what type of products are coming out of plants at the present moment.

“We know this isn’t something that just Vermeer is dealing with, or manufacturers of equipment are dealing with,” says Jason Andringa, Vermeer president and CEO. “The whole world is facing this, and it’s our job to stay focused on where we can make an impact, along with abiding by the guidelines that are out there.”

Vermeer’s team members are working together with RP America to make face shields for health care workers fighting COVID-19 on the front lines at Pella Regional Health Center in Pella, Iowa, where Vermeer is headquartered. Employing cutting-edge 3D printing technology, the company successfully worked with hospital officials to determine the best design of a visor piece for use on the face shield. The company then worked alongside local 3D printer owners in an effort to spur even more production of PPE.

“We’re able to help, and we’re happy to do it,” says Andringa.

3D-printed visor pieces for use on health care workers' face shields
3D-printed visor pieces for use on health care workers' face shields

The seriousness of the pandemic became apparent to Vermeer officials when the company’s operation in Tianjin, China, was forced to shut down earlier this year as part of a lockdown in the region. In order to reopen, Vermeer officials were required to implement several measures, from distribution of face masks and PPE to coordination of employee temperature readings. Thanks to the prompt and successful response, Vermeer was one of the first companies in Tianjin to open up once government officials lifted the lockdown.

“Now America’s dealing with COVID-19,” says Andringa. “And the supply chain we cultivated in China, we’re leveraging it for the rest of the Vermeer enterprise. Not only have we been able to procure PPE for our own use, but we’re able to continue to leverage the supply chain in order to provide PPE to the state of Iowa and our local community.”

During this time, Vermeer’s internal communication efforts have been made much easier thanks to increased adoption of a recently launched company app. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the app was being used by 600 Vermeer employees. Now, only a few weeks later, 2,700 company team members have signed up and are active users. Initially made available a month and a half ago, the app now serves as the primary means of circulating important information among company employees.  

“It’s really helped that we have communicated as much as we have with our team,” Andringa says. “And feels like we’re over that first wave of really imminent concern about COVID-19. Not all that long ago, there were certainly people who really felt as though it was going to sweep through the state of Iowa and Vermeer, and that there was no avoiding it.”

Andringa cited vigilant efforts related to social distancing, hand washing, and sanitization as key measures taken to prevent infection among the company’s workforce. So far, it’s been extremely successful. Vermeer has seen only one confirmed case among its 3,500 team members.

“The one team member has not been on Vermeer’s (Pella) campus, or in contact with any other Vermeer team member,” says Andringa. “And because (the virus) hasn’t been in any of our production facilities, I think people are responding well and settling into pretty much a normal scenario.”

Deere & Company is another equipment manufacturer that has evolved to meet the needs of the current situation. The company recently teamed up with the UAW, IAM, Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Illinois Manufacturers’ Association in an effort to produce protective face shields for health care workers.

“Our employees wanted to do more,” says David Ottavianelli, director of labor relations for the company’s Moline, Illinois-based operations. “They wanted to help out the front-line health care professionals. They are our neighbors, and some are even part of our families. It’s been amazing to see the desire to help, and then to step up to the plate and make a real difference.”

In the first week of production at the John Deere Seeding Moline plant, the company produced and delivered over 25,000 shields. The face shields are being delivered to 16 U.S. Deere factories in eight states, as well as the company's U.S. Deere-Hitachi factory for local distribution.

Ultimately, says Ottavianelli, the goal is to address an immediate need for face shields in communities where Deere factories are located, with an additional 200,000 set to be produced at some in the near future.

“The leaders in each of our factory locations have been in constant communication with health care organizations in their respective areas, and these organizations have expressed an ongoing need for PPE,” he says. “We thought this was something we could help with, and those conversations and personal connections led to action.”

As part of its efforts to produce PPE, Deere is using an open-source face shield design from the University of Wisconsin. In addition, the company is relying on a wide range of skills, expertise and innovation from both its partners and substantial employee base.

“Our manufacturing and supply management teams, along with our production and maintenance employees, the UAW, and our partners have worked tirelessly to ensure we could lend our support and protect our health care workers during this crisis,” says John May, CEO of Deere & Company. “By working closely with the communities where our employees live and work, we can help support the needs we've identified close to home and, as the project expands, address additional, urgent needs across the country.”

Deere has also continually made protecting company employees a top priority.

The company is implementing employee screening for when its workforce arrives to its facilities. Deere has also provided employees with additional PPE, issued social distancing guidelines and invested in enhanced cleaning and sanitation. 

“We’re extremely proud of the measures we’ve taken to safeguard our employees’ physical, financial and emotional well-being,” says Ottavianelli. “Bottom line is we’re providing an environment where employees are protected.”

The production of thousands of protective face shields is just one of many initiatives the company and its employees have executed in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Additional efforts include:

  • PPE donations to health care facilities.
  • A 2:1 employee match program encouraging donations to local food banks and the American Red Cross.
  • Production of approximately 18,000 protective face shields for use by factory employees.
  • Employee volunteerism efforts to sew cloth masks for community members along with a match from the John Deere Foundation for the time invested in this volunteer activity.
  • The launch of a COVID-19 innovations site to share open-source specifications for related projects, including 3D-printed clips to affix face shields to protective bump caps.

“We’re so proud of our employees,” says Ottavianelli. “They’re the true stars of our efforts.”



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