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Jeweler at bench wearing a mask

Production in a Pandemic

Case studies in responding to COVID-19

By Shawna Kulpa

Companies plan ahead for a lot of things that could disrupt operations—hurricanes, blizzards, even armed heists. But not many have plans on what they’ll do when a global pandemic hits and the government orders them to close, possibly indefinitely.

Of course, that’s exactly what happened this past year. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck early in 2020, the virus spread quickly; city and state governments across the United States started ordering all non-essential businesses to shutter to try to stem the spread. Companies were given little notice, and many weren’t given any idea of how long they would be forced to stay closed. While some companies were well positioned to switch to a remote setup, allowing them to stay up and running while their employees worked from home, many in the jewelry industry were not so fortunate. Sure, some jewelers may have their own benches at home, but how many have casting machines and laser welders?

When companies were given the go-ahead to reopen, the question then became, How do they do so safely while also trying to make up for all of that lost production time? How can they protect their employees so that the virus doesn’t run rampant through a facility, necessitating another shutdown?

Among those that had to answer those questions were Christian Tse, owner of Christian Tse Designs & Manufacturing Inc. in Monrovia, California, and Coby Blanchard, chief supply chain officer of Stuller Inc. in Lafayette, Louisiana. This month, we share how they and their companies responded to the crisis and the steps they’ve taken to better position their companies for the next one.

On the Production Floor

While shut down during the government lockdowns early in the pandemic, both Tse and Blanchard used the time to figure out what changes would be needed in order to protect their employees and to get back up and running as quickly as possible once they could reopen. As with many companies, they prioritized social distancing in production areas.

A few days before they were slated to reopen, Tse and a handful of his managers went in and started moving things, such as jeweler benches, polishing systems, and a laser hallmark station, to better spread out his 40 employees. “Luckily we had enough square footage,” he says, noting that his facility, which handles all aspects of production, is roughly 6,500 square feet. He also invested in Plexiglas shields for his shop, though it wasn’t the easiest endeavor—“All of the staff started calling and ordering it from any Home Depot that had it in stock,” he remembers. While employees were well spaced out, they bolted the Plexiglas onto the side of the benches for extra protection.

Hand sanitizing station in workplace

Although Stuller didn’t need to rearrange many of its casting machines and other heavy production equipment (“Big machinery is naturally spaced apart,” Blanchard says), many of the workstations needed to be kept close together to ensure continuous workflow. To protect those workers, Stuller put the skills and tools it already had on hand to work, creating fixtures to secure transparent shields by designing them in CAD and then printing them.

“We had all those 3-D printers, what better use for them?” says Blanchard. “Shielding was the most effective use for us without having a radical disruption to the production line. It was the most effective way to bring the workforce back and have them feel safe about being here.”

Both companies say the hardest part throughout all of this has been making up for the production time they lost due to being shut down.

Even while Stuller was closed, orders continued rolling in. “The demand did not stop,” Blanchard recalls. “It’s hard to say where the business was coming from, but people were still placing orders.” He estimates that the company lost a few weeks of planned production time because of the shutdown and the reconfiguring that needed to be done to make the work environment safe to reopen.

To help make up some of that lost production time, Stuller relied on a lot of overtime. For the company, it was important not to rush to bring back all of its staff until it had a chance to first see if the changes they implemented worked in reality. Blanchard says they didn’t have everyone return all at once; instead, “we might have had about 20 percent come back” initially as everyone grew accustomed to the changes that were being made. In deciding who to bring back, they focused on “production groups or teams that allowed for a complete flow of the manufacturing process.” He estimates that it took about five weeks before the company brought back 100 percent of its roughly 1,200-person staff.

Tse wound up overhauling the company’s production schedule to help them catch up. Before the pandemic, the company had assigned metal-specific casting days to minimize the chance of mistakes being made. “We have multiple ovens," Tse explains. “When you cast platinum, it needs a certain temperature, and all of the ovens would be set at that temperature.” He and his team didn’t want to worry about lowering the temperatures on some ovens to cast gold or about keeping the flasks straight—“which one was yellow gold, platinum, white gold.”

Now the company casts multiple metals a day. “Rather than having ‘gold cast’ days, we’re casting all metals on the same day,” says Tse. To keep track of the flasks, they designated certain flask sizes for each metal. “Having the visible [reminder] makes it harder to make mistakes,” says Tse. To further minimize mix-ups, Tse also requires that two people verify the flasks rather than leaving it to one person.

Transparent shields for workstations

Stuller put its 3-D printers to use creating fixtures to secure transparent shields on workstations that needed to be kept close together to ensure continuous workflow.

The one downside to the new system is that because the company is using smaller flasks for certain metals, it has to cast more flasks, but Tse believes it’s worth it. “We were able to cast more items and keep the workflow moving forward,” he says, noting that they’ve continued to keep this system in place. “It takes more management of the metal, but it’s a small hurdle.”

Worried that more lockdowns could occur, the company has also taken to over-casting. “We know our clients’ order patterns, so we overcast,” he explains. “If they order 100 units, we’ll cast 175 units. We took a chance, and it’s worked out well.” This way, even if the company is forced to close again, they’ll still have stock available to send to customers. “So far, we’ve been able to manage our orders and no orders have been delayed or cancelled. Our entire team understands the value of our clients.”

And that’s been Tse’s focus in making all of these changes: keeping his clients happy. “We go out of our way to make sure our clients are completely satisfied with our work and delivery,” he says. “I’d rather take on the heavy load than give a client excuses (even in a pandemic).”

Keeping Staff Safe

As shown by the dedication to social distancing, the top priority for both companies during this crisis has been keeping their staffs safe and healthy. Here are a few additional areas of focus.

Filtering the Air. One of the first things Tse thought to do at the start of this crisis was modify his facility’s ventilation system.

About a year prior to the start of the pandemic, Tse remodeled his home. The contractors told him about the Air Scrubber Plus, an air filtration system that used titanium mesh, ultraviolet light, and proprietary technology to scrub the air clean of many bacteria and viruses without reducing air flow. Impressed when he learned that the technology was originally used by NASA on the International Space Station, Tse, who has allergies, opted to have it installed in his home.

As details about the coronavirus started coming to light, Tse immediately reached out to the company that had installed the system. After learning that the technology had been shown to be effective against COVID-19, he arranged to have it installed at his production facility.

Even though the factory’s existing ventilation system could accommodate the filtration system without any additional changes, it still wasn’t a cheap endeavor. Tse estimates that each air-scrubbing unit cost about $6,000, and he had a total of four units installed (one for each zone). But to Tse, it was a no-brainer investment, as it would help prevent the spread of the virus should one of his employees contract it. “We couldn’t afford to shut down again,” he says.

Stuller also took steps to adjust the fresh-air flow in its ventilation system, converting all of the system’s filters to a specific type that can remove particulates of a certain size, says Blanchard, noting that that change was the most expensive one they made. “No modifications to the ventilation system were required, but the filters themselves are far more expensive than standard filters.”

Keeping Staff Separate. To help keep employees better spaced out, Stuller converted a number of its classrooms and conference rooms into spaces for CAD design and customer service teams. And since the conference rooms now have a new use, the company has switched to using Microsoft Teams software for virtual staff meetings.

Microsoft Teams is also helpful to keep those employees who are telecommuting connected. Although Blanchard believes that members of the Stuller team ultimately “work better together,” he says the company continues to “exercise the work-from-home strategy where possible “to protect the health of our workforce.”

Tse also shifted his administrative staff around to space them out, including using a large conference room for his quality control staff. With some of the smaller rooms, Tse alternates his staff members, such as diamond setters, depending on the work that’s needed. And he continues to allow those who can work from home, such as his design team, to do so.

However, the majority of his staff are back working on-site, although on an altered schedule so not everyone comes in at the same time. They’ve also discovered a new break policy. “We break lunchtimes into two different time periods,” says Tse. “There’s no congregating during lunch.” The company has outdoor seating, but the picnic tables are now limited to two employees at a time, rather than the six they would normally accommodate.

Stuller custodian cleaning a table

To keep staff safe, Stuller has a dedicated custodial team that cleans restrooms and common areas multiple times each day.

Stuller took a page from restaurants and removed many of the tables it previously used in its common areas. This gave them the room to space out the remaining tables. It also removed a number of chairs from these areas, limiting the number of seats at each table to two.

Also, instead of having 100 employees going for an hour lunch break at the same time, for example, the company has divided them up into four groups of 25. In the process, it’s discovered that the staggered schedules have helped with workflow and it anticipates making this change permanent.

Cleanliness Is King. At both companies, masks are required and hand sanitizer is readily available for all employees. In fact, Stuller has instituted mandatory hand sanitizing when employees first arrive at work. In the same way they screen employees for precious metals, “security ensures everyone sanitizes on the way in,” explains Blanchard.

For his part, Tse requires that all employees have their temperatures checked when they arrive, and the company has installed touchless hand sanitizer stations throughout the facility. “Everything is very touchless now,” Tse says.

Stuller has also embraced going touchless. Anyone who has ever toured Stuller’s headquarters knows how massive the facility is. Those long hallways that allow employees to get all of their steps in every day also mean a lot of doors. To help minimize touchpoints, the company propped open all of the doors that don’t need to be kept closed for safety or security reasons.

To keep the building clean, Stuller employs disinfecting fogging devices. While production areas are cleaned daily, they’re disinfected via fogging three days a week. In addition, a dedicated custodial staff cleans restrooms and common areas multiple times each day.

Tse invested in a full-time cleaning staff to go through the facility three or four times a day, concentrating on high-traffic areas and defogging the entire building when it closes on Fridays. (Not surprisingly, Tse cites his cleaning supplies as one of the top expenses the company has incurred since the pandemic began.)

In addition, Tse expanded his use of the technology already on hand. Because they do a lot of white-label manufacturing, Tse’s team has UV ovens on site that it uses to disinfect pieces before shipping. The company can process one jewelry tray at a time, and each tray is in the oven for five minutes. “It’s all put through the oven to burn off any organic material prior to shipping,” Tse says.

The company also uses the ovens to disinfect common tools in the shop. “Once a week, all of the tools go into the chambers with the UV lights,” says Tse, who notes that “the staff puts their cellphones in the chamber, too.”

Despite all of the precautions Tse has taken, he admits that the biggest challenge in keeping his workers healthy and safe is dealing with those who don’t comply with state-mandated guidelines.

“They need to take it seriously,” he says. “They can’t hang out with their friends on the weekend and then infect their coworkers on Monday.” Although he can’t control what his employees do (or don’t do) in their off-time, he “reminds them to look at the big picture—‘What if you infect the whole company and we have to shut down?’”

The company had one incident where an employee was asymptomatic but tested positive for COVID-19. “We shut down for two days to have everyone get tested,” recalls Tse. “It’s very stressful when you have someone test positive.”

As of presstime, Tse’s facility has once again been forced into lockdown due to rising COVID-19 cases in the Los Angeles area. He’s unsure about how long this lockdown will last, but he and his team feel better prepared to endure it and face the backlog when they return because of all of the work they did.

“The customer doesn’t need to know or understand what we do behind the scenes,” he says. “But it’s better to put things in place to prevent problems than try to fix it when it’s broken.”

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