For those who see opportunity in adversity, a crisis can spur innovation. Kruger Family Industries (KFI), the largest heavy-gauge industrial thermoformer in North America, has a 45-year history through its two Portage, Wisconsin-based brands – TriEnda and Penda. Purchased in 2014, TriEnda produces pallets, dunnage, and material handling materials. Penda, purchased in 2016, focuses on truck bed liners and other automotive components. Located only about 1.5 miles apart, and with two factories in Mexico, there are about 1,000 employees and 1 million sq. ft. of manufacturing space housing 39 thermoforming machines, each with a forming area of 64ft2. So, when the automotive manufacturing plants announced they’d be shutting down indefinitely in March 2020, a lot was at risk.
Countdown to creativity
“Wednesday, March 18, is a day that sticks out to me pretty vividly,” says KFI Founder David Kruger. “When the OEMs announced their COVID closings, we knew we had to take some drastic steps.”
No company wants to put people on furlough or out of work, so KFI had to figure out quickly if there was something considered essential in the market it could produce. By Friday of that week, Kruger sent a note to the engineering group, challenging them to think about what the company could make to serve the medical industry – face masks? Hospital beds? Face shields? Wall partitions?
“It was fun for the team because they got to let their minds run wild,” Kruger notes.
The goal was to evaluate all ideas by Monday morning and see where there was a fit with TriEnda and Penda capabilities, considering time to market, efficient price point, and scalability.
“There was reported to be an anticipated shortage of hospital beds, and this product became our focus for a couple of reasons,” Kruger says. “First off, we actually make fold-down beds for the Class A truck industry.”
With previous experience making sleeping systems, KFI was well versed in push and pull points and had existing finite element analysis (FEA) modeling of stress and deflection points for people sleeping in thermoformed beds.
“When it comes to emergency situations, it’s all about having something when you need it and being able to store it when you don’t,” he adds. “Our experience with returnable packaging was perfect for understanding these requirements.”
After that meeting, engineers and industrial artists brainstormed and created concepts for an emergency and disaster relief bed for presentation later that day.
“At that meeting, we debated on what we liked and didn’t, while really focusing on our ability to get something to market very, very quickly,” Kruger comments. “By Friday (March 27), the team had come to a solid design from a thermoforming perspective for the bed itself, while needing to further its work on the armrests, wheel, IV bag attachments, and so-on.”
In simpatico supplier
In this situation, time to market was of the utmost importance.
“The shutdowns had many worried. ‘What’s going to happen to our business and what can we do to attack this pandemic’? We talked to several of our tooling suppliers, but Tooling Tech Group (TTG) viewed it similarly to us, and brought an entrepreneurial spirit to the challenge,” Kruger says.
Working with Gary Poeppelman, president of TTG’s compression and thermoforming division, Kruger saw a shared understanding of the need and why it was essential to hit timelines.
TTG, a longtime supplier of thermoforming tools to Penda and TriEnda, was already an established partner. As the bed design solidified on Friday, March 27, engineers issued a purchase order for tools for the bed base and backrest.
“One thing about our culture,” says Nate Ruhenkamp, TTG thermoforming and compression division sales manager, “If there’s a deadline to be made, no one asks questions why. We focus on delivering on time, every time. Our team became very invested in this project and proud of their work to help those in need.”
As a vertically-integrated supplier, TTG was able to offer services not always available from other tooling suppliers. Although KFI often cuts its own foundry patterns in-house, the company could turn to TTG to cut the bed pattern for this project, using a medium density fiber-board (MDF).
“Another key advantage at Tooling Tech,” Ruhenkamp adds, “is our in-house foundry, where we can cast all our own aluminum molds. In an instance like this requiring speed and efficiency, you want somebody that has all the operations or capabilities in-house.”
Kruger adds that, “Like everything in this time-sensitive situation, nothing could happen without a lot of things going right. Tooling Tech definitely had the skill set as well as the right attitude for this project. They put in the extra hours to make sure we were taken care of, and we couldn’t have met this timeline without them.”
Penda retooled its facility and TTG delivered four sets of tools (two beds and two backrests) in record time. Bed production started on April 16, less than a month after KFI’s team drafted its initial concept sketches. KFI ran bed components on two different machines, producing about 1,100 units per day with the ability to scale up if needed, with two more sets of tooling provided by TTG.
“If you ask anyone in the industry, they will tell you that producing molds for a project like this normally takes five- to six-week turnaround,” Ruhenkamp notes. “Getting the initial set of tooling produced within 10 days was astounding. I couldn’t be more impressed with our team in what they accomplished.”
For the KFI group, the speed of this project changed the company’s attitude about what it was able to achieve.
Kruger says that, “Our engineering manager joked with me and asked, ‘From here on out when you ask how long something is going to take, is that in regular time or COVID time?’”
New market potential
In addition to the engineering and manufacturing teams having to hustle to produce beds, the sales team had to sell it, which they managed exceptionally well, especially considering this was a new market for KFI. The first companies interested included the local Portage hospital, Divine Savior, the Boston Field Hospital with an order for 600, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). All early buyers were pleased with the performance and the price. Although these beds don’t qualify as fully functional hospital beds, they fit any emergency and cost one-tenth the price.
Quickly moving into a new market was a challenge and a learning experience for the KFI group.
“We are still dipping our toe in,” Kruger says. “But we have unique capabilities as a company to turn around products in mass quantities very, very quickly, and that’s what’s needed in emergencies.”
In addition to the bed, the company also developed a modular and portable wall partition. It can help in stand-up field hospitals or any situation where a temporary structure needs to be constructed quickly. It’s already being sold to homeless shelters and field hospitals.
The company is now developing an emergency disaster services (EDS) cot for situations where many people must quickly be housed in temporary shelters. Existing standard cots are small, not very comfortable, and do not store well. Kruger thinks this product is natural for his company, creating a better answer at a better price point. However, he noted that in emergency situations, speed is more important than cost.
Taking this sort of initiative has earned KFI and TTG some nice kudos.“I have peers that run companies I very much respect,” Kruger reflects, “and they sent nice notes to me and were extremely impressed by this effort and appreciative of what we were doing. That means a lot when a competitor of yours takes the time to send you an unsolicited note.”
Happily, much of the business for both companies has gone back to something closer to normal.
“In general,” Kruger adds, “we’re adding medical products where we see a gap. But I’m glad to say our bed-liner business is back to 80%-to-85% of where we were earlier in the year. And we definitely will continue to rely on Tooling Tech, as they have more than proved their ability to support us in all situations.”