August 23, 2020

Round Rock’s manufacturing industry remains positive despite COVID-19 adjustments

By: Rachel Madison

When COVID-19 hit the United States earlier this year, it didn’t take long for businesses across the country to make big changes to slow the spread of the coronavirus. While some businesses were forced to shut down for a time, others deemed essential stayed open—but not without having to make several major adjustments to their daily practices, hiring processes, business procedures, and more.

This couldn’t have been more true for the manufacturing industry in Round Rock, but despite all the adjustments, manufacturers across the city remain optimistic about the future and confident that the changes they have made will help their businesses to continue to thrive in the future.

Curt Smith, chief financial officer at AYRO, a designer and manufacturer of all-electric vehicles, said workers who can work remotely have been doing so since March, but not everyone can work from home.

“We can’t manufacture our cars at home, so we are very careful,” he said. “We have stepped up our cleaning, we do temperature checks on everyone coming in, and if you’re feeling the slightest bit under the weather, we ask you to stay home. We grant additional time off to employees for COVID-related sickness, so if they have been exposed, we have them stay home until they’re cleared through testing. We are very flexible with that and pay our employees while they are at home isolating, because we can’t afford for our line to be shut down.”

Traveling has been put on pause for now, which Smith said he hopes to resume soon, so that customers in other states will be able to have in-person service. “Some of our solutions actually solve a lot of COVID-related problems,” Smith said. “We partner with an organization that builds mobile food solutions on the electric vehicles we develop, which will help universities get food to their students in a different way, through a mobile kiosk, instead of in the dining hall. That’s the silver lining in the cloud of COVID. We have been able to change up our regular day-to-day strategy.”

Mitch Altman, chief executive officer at ThermaSol, a manufacturer of steam showers, saunas, and other steam-related amenities, said his organization has also sent employees who are able to work remotely home to do their jobs. Those who must come in to work in the factory have plenty of room for social distancing. “We have a large, 25,000-square-foot factory and we have about twenty-five people working in there, so there’s plenty of room for social distancing,” he said. “Everybody wears a mask and gets their temperature checked daily. Fortunately, we haven’t experienced anybody with any real symptoms at all.”

Because ThermaSol is a national company, business has been affected in a sense that its customers, which are mainly kitchen and bath showrooms across the country, have been shuttered. “We are able to get by with whatever they’re doing to function, which is by appointment only and internet sales,” Altman said. “I don’t know the overall impact, but I’m hoping we can get past this and get back to some normalcy. We’ve opened up other avenues of distribution based on people not having brick-and-mortar stores to go into.”

Melissa Aleman, chief human resources officer at Chatsworth Products, a company that engineers thermal, power, and cable management solutions for data centers, enterprise networking, and industrial enclosure markets, said COVID-19 has impacted everything with regard to the way they do business at their organization.

“We have everyone who can work from home doing so,” she said. “We have 165 people working from home as opposed to fifty-five under normal conditions. We’ve minimized the number of people in our facility to keep them safe. We have also implemented a number of daily measures to keep our team safe. We’re doing everything from temperature scans to wearing masks to practicing social distancing to minimizing seating in the break room.” Aleman added that no one from the company has been traveling for the last four months.

“We’ve had to really learn how to use technology over the last few months, because our ability to get in front of customers and interact with them has completely changed,” she said. Ron Orris, managing director of Chatsworth Products’ Round Rock facility, added that operationally, adjustments were made to how shifts were structured, so that not as many workers overlapped shifts and less workers were taking breaks or lunches at the same time.

“That’s been a pretty significant challenge, but I think we were really fortunate to be early adopters in the working-from-home policy and as a result of that, we’ve been able to establish a healthy and confident workforce.” In fact, Aleman said in the future, she expects the company to offer more flexibility to employees on where they do their work from.

“We’ve learned we can be very productive, and we don’t have to all be sitting in the same building,” she said. “That’s maybe one of the positives that has come out of this. COVID has opened our eyes to technology and utilizing the tools around us to be creative in how we do our jobs.”

Jim Hempe, chief financial officer at TECO-Westinghouse, a company that manufactures industrial motors, said of the 250 employees in his Round Rock facility, only about fifty of them have remained on site to work. The rest are working remotely from home. “We make large motors, so our employees are not right next to each other,” he said. “The space they occupy is not like an assembly line. We have a 500,000 square foot facility. We implemented face masks and created twenty zones for people to stay in. Even our bathrooms are zoned, and you must stay in your zone. We have been pretty successful, and we haven’t had a case where we’ve transmitted the virus between each other as workers.” Top management also stayed on site but is practicing social distancing within the office and even using Zoom or WebEx for meetings instead of sitting in the same room together.

“We also closed our facility to any customers visiting and we do temperature checks at the gate,” he said. “That’s put a damper on business. When our customers started shutting down productivity, we had to change the way we approached customers. The customers we have relationships with weren’t as affected, but new projects where you have to have some kind of interface, had a learning curve. A lot of large projects were postponed. March went through, April went through, and then we noticed in May we were getting customers asking if they could delay the receipt of the motors we were building, or if they could cancel the order. That caused our business to stall. In the month of May, we had our worst month in four years.”

Hempe added that because TECO-Westinghouse is a conservative company, it’s been able to sustain itself, but they did have to make a few adjustments by not filling any open positions they had previously had available. “We also have facilities in Canada and Mexico. In Mexico our business dropped to twenty-five percent and in Canada it dropped to about fifteen percent. We weathered the storm in the U.S. It’s stopped dropping, but it hasn’t gotten back to the levels we were at last year. We will probably go through the rest of year that way. It’s been a learning experience.”

Michael Gray, chief operating officer at Infinitum Electric, a manufacturer of electric motors, said entry is restricted to employees only. Even delivery drivers dropping off packages must do contactless delivery. “Since March we’ve really restricted the number of people who come into our buildings,” he said. “We social distance within the office, and if you’re not in your office or at your workstation, then you must wear a mask. We’ve held more virtual meetings, so instead of gathering, everyone stays in their office. We’ve also increased the level of disinfectant in our office to three times a week, and we’ve increased air flow in the bathrooms to circulate air a bit more.”

Gray said the biggest impact to his company has been the inability to travel to visit project partners and customers, as well as source parts from suppliers. “COVID has put us probably six to eight weeks behind in our scheduling, and it’s cost us tens of thousands of extra dollars in terms of having to air freight things we wouldn’t normally have to air freight,” he said. “It’s been a pretty strong impact to us, and we don’t see that changing anytime soon. We’re still seeing the same shipping delays, and we don’t think we’ll be able to travel until well into the fall, which continues to add to the delays and cost us money.”

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