How one company shifted gears from pedicabs to personal protective equipment

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Northeastern graduate Ben Morris temporarily turned his Bonner, Montana pedicab plant into a face shield manufacturing site. Photo by Erica Zurek

In 2014, Coaster Cycles founder Ben Morris made a decision that was crucial to the growth of his ten-year-old company—and is now keeping it running during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of manufacturing overseas, as is typical for U.S. bike brands, he opened his own plant outside of Missoula, Montana. 

Producing domestically gave the pedicab company the ability to quickly go through multiple iterations of a design and turn around custom orders within just a few weeks, says Morris, who graduated from Northeastern in 2005 with a degree in marketing and finance.

Soon, some of the world’s largest corporations, including Starbucks, Nestle and UPS, were hiring Coaster Cycles to build state-of-the-art, three-wheeled cycles for marketing campaigns, cargo transportation, and food and beverage sales. 

In mid-March, with its usual operations halted but most of its domestic supply chain still intact, the company was able to quickly pivot to making  thousands of face shields a day for healthcare workers. It is now producing about 50,000 a day. 

Coaster Cycles is one of a number of small and large U.S. manufacturers that have recently shifted to making personal protective equipment in response to COVID-19-related shortages in the U.S.

The lack of essential supplies is in large part because of the country’s reliance on overseas supply chains at a time of increased global demand.

“You’re seeing true American grit and ingenuity right now,” says Morris, who started his business as a Boston pedicab service when he was a student at Northeastern.

Another reason why Coaster Cycles was able to shift to making face shields so quickly: open-source design. 

On a Friday night in mid-March, Morris stumbled upon an open-source face shield design while scrolling on LinkedIn. It had been a devastating week.

A few days earlier, he had laid off about 80 percent of his employees, because “business came to a standstill and nobody was buying bikes.”

The link he discovered provided easy-to-follow instructions to make a face shield named the Badger Shield, based on one used at the University of Wisconsin’s hospital. 

“If you are a maker space, a light manufacturer or just a handy family, this may be a way for you to give back,” read the PDF. 

Morris learned that the process was “simple enough for my 7-year-old daughter” and required materials, including foam and plastic, that his company could source from its usual suppliers. So he immediately shared the document with his chief operations officer, Justin Bruce.

“I said, ‘Justin, we can do this.This is a way we can put our people back to work and give back to people on the front lines’,” Morris says. “Fast forward from there, and we basically created a mini micro company.” 

Over the last month and a half, Morris says, he has been able to offer jobs to all of the plant’s laid-off employees and hire several additional workers.

Now, about 100 people are making shields in his manufacturing facility. The process takes about 30 seconds and involves adhering a 13-inch piece of laser-cut plastic to a 9-inch piece of foam, then stapling on a pre-cut piece of elastic.

The first order—for 500,000 pieces—was from Providence Hospital Group, a group of 51 hospitals located in the western part of the U.S. Morris’s company is filing it by sending shields to the hospital group at a rate of 12,000 a day, and have also supplied the New York City Department of Health, nursing homes and rehabilitation centers.

Right now, the cycles still on the assembly line when the company halted production are covered up with clear plastic tarps. When pedicab manufacturing restarts, likely in June, the company will continue making face shields, Morris says. He anticipates soon supplying them to workers in fields other than healthcare, such as grocery-store and pharmacy employees.

With the shortage of essential medical supplies highlighting the risks of relying on the global supply chain, the pandemic may lead to greater interest American-made goods, Morris says.

“You’re not going to get a better hint of how important it is to consider onshoring,” Morris says. “This reaffirms our position that you can manufacture in the U.S. and be successful. It doesn’t matter if you are selling face shields, or bikes, or cars. It can be done, and be done competitively.” 

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