This story is part of a series about Washtenaw County businesses' response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Support for this series is provided by Ann Arbor SPARK.
When COVID-19 caused sports seasons to be canceled in March, Saline-based sports mouthguard and dental night guard manufacturer Akervall Technologies turned a devastating circumstance into an opportunity.
"Our orders just tanked," says Akervall Technologies CEO Sassa Akervall. "I was worried, but then my COO suggested we make lemons out of lemonade and create personal protective equipment (PPE) to help during the pandemic."
A few weeks after suspending production of mouthguards, the Saline-based company reopened and pivoted production from sports mouthguards to face shields for medical workers.
Akervall Technologies was able to use many of its vendors to acquire supplies for face shields, and soon received large orders from hospitals and the state of Michigan.
The initial response was overwhelming, as face shields were in short supply during the start of the pandemic. At peak production in May and June, Akervall Technologies' production facility was running two shifts and producing 12,000-16,000 units a day. Akervall Technologies hired an additional 100 temporary employees during that time to keep up with the demand. The company also found niche markets to supply, such as ambulance workers and dentists.
"If you're a small company, you have to think differently and outside the box," Akervall says. "We were doing anything we could to bring in orders."
Given the significant increase in employees, Akervall Technologies had to navigate social distancing and safety challenges. Akervall says the company's office staff has been working from home since March, and production teams expanded into office space to maintain a safe distance while working. All employees wear PPE and have their temperatures taken before starting a shift, and work stations are sanitized at least four times a day.
"We're doing everything we can to keep our people safe," Akervall says.
Production at the Akervall Technologies facility has now slowed from two shifts to one. In addition to maintaining its staff of 19, Akervall Technologies has kept 16 temporary employees to continue production.
While Akervall was concerned the company's doors would be closed for good in March, the face shield products have sustained the business and will continue to be a part of the company's future, Akervall says.
"Our business used to be split from about 80% sports mouthguards to 20% night guards," Akervall says. "And while night guards have remained steady, now we're at 70% face shields. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it's that it's important to be prepared and the virus is not going away anytime soon."
In the last four months, the company has rolled out additional face shield models, some inspired by its relationship with the dental industry. The new products include a child-size option and an extendable option, which is adjustable for wearers who use goggles.
Akervall Technologies has patents pending on the extendable model and a model for patients who are having procedures via the mouth or nose. Additional child-size options are expected to launch soon with more customizable features, Akervall says.
In the future, Akervall hopes to return to more production of sports mouthguards and roll out new sports products that were slated to launch earlier this year. Akervall Technologies is also searching for opportunities to raise money and scale its sports mouthguard business.
"We're hopeful we can get back to our core products soon," Akervall says.
However, face shields won't be leaving Akervall Technologies' production line anytime soon. Akervall says they saved the company and have changed the way the staff thinks about the business.
"It's hard to be grateful for something so tragic, but it saved my staff," Akervall says. "I'm grateful for the opportunity we've had to help during the pandemic and for my team's hard work."
For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.
Emily Benda is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos courtesy of Akervall Technologies.