New Brunswick

Working together, N.B. businesses have started mass producing PPE

When 'a call to action’ went out from the federal government a few weeks ago for any Canadian companies to help to create essential equipment to fight COVID-19, a pair of New Brunswick companies answered.

Two companies pair up to make plastic face shields for health-care workers

Tim Burton, an employee of Sure Grip, shows some of the personal protection equipment his company had a hand in making. (Shane Fowler/CBC News)

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called on Canadian companies to help make essential equipment to fight COVID-19, a pair of New Brunswick companies were among those that answered.

They've teamed up to make face shields.

And a process that would normally take close to two months to reach production has been compressed into less than a week.   

Bouctouche Bay Industries, in Saint-Édouard-de-Kent, normally makes equipment for growing oysters and components for lobster traps. Sure Grip of Upper Kingsclear manufactures hand controls and driving aids for the disabled.

Steen Gunderson, president and CEO of BBI Group, is mass producing face shields for the Maritimes, a result of a federal 'call to action' in the wake of COVID-19. (Pierre Fournier/CBC News)

Together they will churn out thousands of shields as part of the personal protection equipment distributed to front-line health workers. 

"We're looking to be at 12,000 the first week, rising up to 25,000 a week in the coming weeks as we move forward," said Steen Gunderson, president and CEO of Bouctouche Bay Industries, or BBI.

The company is now mass-producing the shields, protective plastic face coverings worn with a plastic headband. They help limit direct contact with droplets from coughs, sneezes, and other fluids and moisture coming from those near the wearer. 

The concept for manufacturing the face shields came from designers at Dalhousie University. 

They sent the designs to Bouctouche Bay Industries to see if they could be manufactured quickly. 

"That was the start of bringing the product to the market extremely quickly," said Gunderson. 

But BBI had to retool its manufacturing process to build the shields. That included putting in an order for new moulds needed to form the plastic used in the headbands. 

Workers at BBI Group have pivoted to making PPE during the pandemic. Normally the company makes a variety of products for aquaculture, including equipment for oyster farming and lobster fishing. (Pierre Fournier/CBC News)

"The tool design and tool manufacturing usually takes six to eight weeks," said Gunderson. "Those guys pulled out all the stops, worked 24-7." 

Gunderson had the new equipment designed, built, and delivered in five days. 

In Upper Kingsclear, just outside Fredericton, workers at Sure Grip build a variety of mechanical and electronic devices that allow those who can't use standard steering wheels and gas pedals to drive their vehicles. 

"We've done everything from smart cars to transport trucks, Teslas to Ferraris," said Cody Howell, Sure Grip operations manager. 

Thousands of face shield headbands are expected to roll of this conveyor belt in the weeks ahead at BBI. Here they are assembled and inspected before being shipped. (Pierre Fournier/CBC News)

The pandemic brought demand to a halt and that led to an immediate loss of work at Sure Grip. 

"We went from 38 staff four weeks ago to about 12 now," said Howell. 

But about two weeks after work fell off, the company got a call from BBI to see if it could make the moulds needed to mass produce face shields. Sure Grip had the first one done in record time. 

"We delivered the first on Friday," said Howell. "And we're working very hard to get a second one out so they can double their production capacity by this Friday."

Cody Howell, the operations manager at Sure Grip in Upper Kingsclear, has been working to create tools for BBI so it can make PPE. (Shane Fowler/CBC News)

With the new tools in place BBI is now able to produce two of the plastic bands used in the shields in less than a minute. 

From there, workers mount the plastic shield, inspect the final product and package it for shipping. 

With a second tool on the way Gunderson expects to ramp up production to around 30,000 units a week. And that's meant hiring in a time where many people are out of work. 

"Right now we've got four positions available that we'd like to fill as soon as possible," said Gunderson. 

A second tool is being built for BBI Group by Sure Grip in Upper Kingsclear to increase production of face shields. (Shane Fowler/CBC News)

He said the first shipments of the shields are going to hospitals throughout the Maritimes, but as that need is filled, he expects them to also go to nursing homes and even retail workers. 

 At Sure Grip, Howell said his team has been driven by personal experience. 

"Our tool-maker … his wife is a nurse at the hospital in Waterville," said Howell. "And they're scrambling like everyone else to find protective gear that they need. So, it's personal for us because we've got this guy that's making this tool ... to create something that his wife needs to go to work and work safely and not bringing this epidemic into their homes." 


Shane Fowler


Shane Fowler has been a CBC journalist based in Fredericton since 2013.


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