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Detroit businesses adapt to support COVID-19 efforts

May 7, 2020

Those of us who remember the history of our City know the important role Detroit played in supporting U.S. troops during WWII. Today, the “Arsenal of Democracy” has become the “Arsenal of Health,” leading the fight against an invisible enemy threatening the safety and security of our people and economy.

For Detroit’s Big Three – GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler – it’s very familiar territory. While they once produced iconic machines of war – the Willys Jeep, Sherman tank and B-24 bomber -today’s wartime production includes ventilators, face shields and N95 masks.

Our automakers are not alone in this incredible response. Many Detroit companies are working to stop the spread of COVID-19 by pivoting to personal protective equipment (PPE) production, including:

  • LIFT is 3D printing N95 masks
  • Detroit City Distillery and Atwater Brewery are producing hand sanitizer
  • Commonwealth Sewing Company is making masks and gowns
  • The Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center (ISAIC) is making surgical masks and isolation gowns in partnership with the Empowerment Plan
  • Detroit Denim and Pingree Detroit are producing plastic for face shields
  • York Project is making surgical masks
  • Xenith is assembling face shields

In a true testament to our work ethic, Southeast Michigan has become a hub for PPE manufacturing, with many companies even donating the items being produced. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) is helping 12 Michigan businesses with their transformation through its Pure Michigan Business Connect COVID-19 Emergency Access and Retooling Grants program. This program is providing a total of $1 million to small manufacturers now producing critical health and human service supplies. Three Detroit businesses were among the recipients: ISAICCommonwealth Sewing Co. and York Project.

For ISAIC, PPE production was definitely not their original launch plan. The non-profit learning institute was slated to open this spring as an apparel manufacturer dedicated to creating sustainable employment and promising careers for Detroiters. However, its advanced manufacturing foundation and expertise in emerging technologies positioned ISAIC to instead begin producing medical grade masks and isolation gowns for the medical community. They are now working with local manufacturing partners to produce specialty mask/gown kits for area hospitals. Established in 2017 and located above Carhartt’s flagship store in Midtown Detroit, ISAIC was one of two businesses receiving the maximum award of $150,000 from MEDC.

“This support will help us continue our mission of developing the talent force for domestic apparel manufacturing in Detroit,” said Jen Guarino, CEO of ISAIC. “It will also allow us to support local businesses and help keep their workers employed as we get critical protective equipment to healthcare workers.”

Thanks to our manufacturing leadership and innovative production processes, Detroit’s business community is not only protecting our heroic first responders and healthcare workers, they are keeping employees working. With unemployment at a record high, a paycheck is a critical element in sustaining ourselves through this crisis.

Detroit’s response to adversity does not change. We are makers and creators. We find solutions and implement change. It’s who we are. When our world returns to its new normal, I’m hopeful that global corporations will take notice of Detroit’s ability to pivot, scale, transform and deliver. If our people can do this during a crisis, imagine what Detroiters can offer in the post-COVID-19 world.

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