Until a couple weeks ago, Framebridge’s virtual morning meetings had been pretty grim. “Like everybody else, we were shocked and saddened, and trying to figure out what was going to happen to our community and our team,” says Susan Tynan, CEO of the DC-based framing startup.
As it grappled with the Covid-19 crisis, Framebridge had majorly scaled back manufacturing, and closed its brick-and-mortar stores in Logan Circle and downtown Bethesda. “All we were talking about was the business impact, and the loans we could apply for,” says Tynan. Then, an employee had an idea: “Someone said, ‘We cut acrylic, and it looks like we could make face shields.'”
Almost immediately, Framebridge shifted its focus from custom-framing to manufacturing an important piece of the PPE that’s been in such dangerously short supply for frontline workers. The company is selling the face shields at cost. Though Framebridge won’t profit financially, Tynan says the effort has renewed her team’s sense of purpose: “This has just brought the light back to us.”
Zach Huffer, an IT manager in Framebridge’s Lexington, Kentucky factory, designed two prototypes using the acrylic normally meant for the fronts of frames. The first design uses thicker acrylic for a “halo” that fits around the head. A face shield made of thinner acrylic snaps into the halo, and can be easily replaced. The second, more expensive design straps around the head with foam and elastic.
Tynan says it wasn’t terribly difficult to rewire the Kentucky factory for the new endeavor. Within a week of perfecting the designs, the same equipment used to cut custom frames was pumping out the face shields. About 30 workers are now on site helping to assemble and ship them. Tynan says the employees are all wearing their own PPE and keeping a safe distance from one another.
Initial orders came via word of mouth—for instance, through an employee who’s mother works in a nursing home, and another who’s sister works in an emergency room. Then, on Friday, Tynan got word that the state of Kentucky wants 30,000 of the face shields. She says her factory currently has enough materials to produce 100,000 of them.
The company is getting into face masks, too. Through one of its executives who competes in Ironman triathlons, Framebridge learned that the Ironman Foundation was sitting on thousands of t-shirts for canceled races. The excess swag has since been shipped to the Kentucky factory, where it’s getting turned into cloth masks. The first order for the masks came from firefighters in Arizona.
Tynan says Framebridge’s regular clientele should expect framing orders to be delayed while the company prioritizes making PPE. She says she’s not sure how long the effort will continue: “Like everything else related to coronavirus, we just don’t know.”