Local plant making millions of gowns

Novolex steps up, steps in to make COVID-19 protection
Workers at the Shawano Novolex plant stretch out the film poly material that will be made into protective gowns for health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The plant recently ramped up production of the gowns and now makes millions each month.

ContributedA Novolex representative models one of two styles of gowns made at the Shawano plant. The gowns are made to specifications needed by health care workers.

Carol Ryczek

SHAWANO — A Shawano manufacturer is stopping the COVID-19 virus millions of times every month.

Novolex, 3100 E. Richmond St., Shawano, has employees working around the clock to make protective gowns for health care workers. On April 21, the packaging company started making gowns on one of its production lines. By mid-June, they will be making 870,000 gowns a week, said Galen Killam, senior product and technical manager in Shields Organization, which includes Novolex in Shawano.

There is a lot of demand from health care workers, especially first responders, said Leann Gueths, Shawano’s plant manager.

The 105 employees in the production side in Shawano are making gowns for health care workers to use as they care for COVID-19 patients. The gowns are made from polyethylene terephthalate, a polymer from the polyester family.

Locally, these products have been used at the Menominee Tribal Clinic and at nursing homes in the Fox Valley, she said.

The ability to make a million of anything, and a history of successful work with disposable products, led Novolex leaders to ask, “What can we do to help?” Killam said. The answer was personal protection equipment — specifically, face masks and gowns. The plant in Shawano was tapped to make gowns.

“We’re a pretty good company at making a lot,” Killam said. “A lot of different things.”

The “different things” that Novolex produces are probably familiar to most people.

“You have used our products,” Killam said. “We make insulation-facing materials. We make ice and food bags…fertilizer, see, anything like that. We make butter packaging. We make coated papers like you would find on a Tootsie Roll.”

While the individual items are familiar, the kind of quantities that Novolex deals with routinely are hard to fathom for someone who grabs one bag at a time.

Novolex has plants throughout North America. So when someone says they need a million of something, the company doesn’t flinch.

“A million of something is totally within normal bounds,” Killam said.

The Shawano facility right now is making vest-style and sleeved gowns. These are single-use PPEs for the medical industry, distributed by the Department of Defense, for use in hospitals with maximum need, he said.

Novolex gowns are made in two styles, one with sleeves and one without. Sleeves aren’t attached as they are with a shirt, he said. The plastic is cut in a T shape, and the seams are sealed and trimmed. The sleeved gowns are made in two sizes, which he said should cover any body type. They are designed so sleeves and gowns can be cut to the appropriate length for the wearer.

“In general, it’s going to fit,” he said.

In addition to fitting correctly, Killam said the gowns had to actually stop the virus from passing through. That meant testing the materials before making the first gown.

“When we decided to enter the market, as you can imagine, we have a lot of companies that we do testing with. We send to outside testing labs to do tests. So we ended up pulling in the University of Iowa testing labs to help us out, ” Killam said. He said the testing proved that they were capable of meeting the needs of the demands placed upon it.

Longstanding relationships with medical supply companies helped guide that process, he said. In addition to engineering the production, they had to make sure they complied with the many regulations that direct supplies for health care workers.

By converting from bags for good to PPE, he added, he feels the company is helping other families while helping its own families stay employed.

Now that they’ve established themselves in the PPE market, Killam sees this is an ongoing product line.

“This will be a long-term market for us,” he said. For now, he said, they anticipate orders for PPEs through the end of 2020.

“There are a lot of orders coming through through the end of the year,” Gueths added.

And while the PPEs are being produced, he added, the demand for packaging food products and the other Novolex products remains strong.

The plant now offers protective gear for employees in addition to the normal steel-toed shoes, eye protection and hearing protection, he said. They are taking employee temperatures and providing masks or shields for workers.

Existing customers aren’t going away, he said, so the plant will be scaling up its operations over the next few weeks.

Novolex in Shawano is hiring. Machine operators work 12-hour shifts, either nights or days. There is no “swing shift” where workers rotate their start times, Gueths said. Information on opportunities is posted on the company’s website, https://careers.novolex.com/?utm=careersite.