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Credit: Courtesy of Drop Manufacturing

Helping front-line workers in Canada and the U.S. stay safe during COVID-19, the B.C. industrial manufacturer wants to get its new product to the masses

For Drop Manufacturing, joining the fight against COVID-19 was a natural fit.

Nelson-based Drop’s main business is designing and manufacturing sprockets for a variety of industrial uses. Drop Sprockets, which processes about 2,000 pounds of steel a day at its HQ in the Central Kootenays, distributes those products throughout Canada and the U.S. Among the 48-employee company’s other divisions is Drop Marine, which designs and builds industrial work boats and their components. 

“What we’re really strong at is engineering through to manufacturing,” says founder and CEO Anders Malpass, who oversees a 45,000-square-foot facility. “So understanding how to make a product, take the outcome of that product and then develop the most simplistic way of manufacturing it for the outcome.”

Drawing on that expertise, Drop recently added a sought-after new item to its roster: face shields for health-care professionals, first responders and other front-line workers.

After the federal government called on the nation’s manufacturers in March to make personal protective equipment (PPE) and other products to help slow the pandemic, the company sprang into action. Given Drop’s equipment and the things it already made, Malpass saw that producing face shields in high volume wouldn’t be a problem. “We just happened to have sophistication in that area, and it was easy for us to apply it.”

But moving ahead presented liability issues for Drop, which holds a Class 1 medical device manufacturing licence from Health Canada. Legal counsel warned Malpass that the company could face lawsuits if people using its face shields contracted coronavirus. Despite that potential hazard, he decided that making them was the right thing to do.

“I said, You know what? I respect that, I understand that, I know there’s inherent risk,” Malpass recalls. “But as a community of people, we have the resources in our facility to do this, and I think that as a manufacturer, we need to.”

So Drop did the necessary design work and started to purchase raw materials, investing $250,000 before production started. “That’s always an interesting business when you’re buying materials and realizing you have no sales channel,” Malpass says. From there, Drop developed a system to manufacture face shields on a large scale.

With production underway, the company launched its Drop for Good site, which sells face shields in packages of 250 for roughly $1,070 and individually for $6.36. Customers can also buy in bulk. “It’s not about money for us; it’s about getting the product to the front lines,” Malpass says.

Drop has the capacity to churn out more than 40,000 face shields a day. “I’m pretty sure from all the government agencies that we spoke with, they didn’t expect us to even be able to produce 1,000,” Malpass reckons.

To meet current orders, Drop is making about 750 face shields daily. So far, most orders have gone to the U.S., with government accounting for none of the demand. “It’s coming from B2B sales and direct sales to people reaching out to us,” explains Malpass, who says the company is fielding calls from border officials and fire and police departments. “They’re like, The government is not giving us enough product; can you please help?”

The federal government has told Drop that it doesn’t need the company’s face shields for the time being, but it’s reviewing that decision daily and weekly, Malpass says. “We are continuing to work with them and are here to support as needed.” Although the Government of B.C. has requested samples, it also has yet to place an order.

Calling it “unfortunate” that the company hasn’t moved more product in Canada, Malpass points out that so far, governments have been ordering whatever they can get their hands on from China. As those shipments keep trickling in, Drop and others have pivoted faster than expected. “I think what happened was there was the government did a call to action to manufacturers and said, Hey, everybody help,” Malpass says. “And then they didn’t realize that manufacturers would come to that call so fast and at so many different levels.”

For Canadian buyers, shipping expenses remain an obstacle. In the U.S., it costs $3.25 to send a four-ounce package—the weight of a single face shield—all the way across the country, Malpass notes. The typical delivery time: one to three days. “To ship the exact same thing anywhere in Canada, it’s a minimum of just under $15 and a week to get there.”

To help get its face shields to the masses, Drop has reached out to potential distributors, Malpass says. “What we want to do is produce and drop off quantities of 500, 1,000, 3,000, 5,000, whatever that is, and then that way it can move out to the market much easier.”

As the pandemic subsides, Malpass doesn’t see Drop continuing to produce face shields on a daily basis. “But I think that as a government, as a community, as a culture, as Canadians, we really need to start to reinvest back into our manufacturing,” he says. “We need to make sure that manufacturers have some capacity to produce these things.”

Although Drop might shut down its face-shield production line when demand fades, it doesn’t make sense to completely dismantle the operation, Malpass contends. After COVID-19, he suggests, governments should keep putting in small annual orders. “Even if it’s only a week a year, at least the equipment is there and the tooling is there for making that in the future.”