Crisis and Opportunity in Rural Utah: Five Questions for FIND’s Nicholina Womack
FutureINDesign (FIND) is a nonprofit micro-factory and technical training center focused on workforce development and growing a manufacturing economy in Price, Utah and surrounding counties.
The effort started two years ago, with a focus on giving underserved young people training in soft and software development skills. FIND has since branched out to help adults gain experience in manufacturing, particularly in producing gear and apparel for the outdoor industry. These operations have proved a springboard for FIND to make personal protective equipment (PPE) to help address the COVID-19 shortage.
We caught up with FIND president and CEO Nicholina Womack to learn more about their “PPE pivot.”
How quickly did you stand up PPE manufacturing?
NW: One of our local connections urged us to look at it, back in February. Since one of the areas of manufacturing we excel at is rapid prototyping, we were able to work the kinks out and streamline our processes in a matter of weeks. So we had a pretty good head start in the market.
We currently have 12 people working in three teams of four on PPE manufacturing. A team of four can make upwards of 1,000 face masks in a day. These are people who took our traditional five-week training program that introduces them to sewn-goods manufacturing .
We’re hoping to bring on another 40 people right away, and we’re looking at ways to shorten the training time, which I should mention is paid training.
How did you secure a purchase order from the State?
It happened pretty fast. EDCUtah’s Stephanie Frohman, who’s on loan to the State’s purchasing team, reached out to us with the idea of providing medical gowns. She sent the specs and we turned around a prototype in a couple of days. We contacted our technical coaches in India, who helped us refine the production process, and the State’s PO arrived only a few days later.
We actually have several POs. We’re making 1,000 gowns and caps; 35,000 face masks for Utah’s “ A Mask for Every Utahn” program, and 100,000 neck gaiters. We are pretty fortunate to have strong industry connections so we haven't had the typical problems sourcing material. The masks are made of a 80% Polyamide and 20% Elastin fabric. That gives it moisture wicking properties and it can be sewn quickly.
Who is helping you in your mission?
Our support system is everything to our success. We have some invaluable local mentors, members of the community, such as Utah State University Eastern, the BEAR (Business Expansion and Retention) Board, the SBDC (Small Business Development Center), all who’ve helped us to get established here in a credible way. They’ve taught us to slow down and listen to what people here want. We don’t come in and impose preconceived notions. That listening process is what got us moving into manufacturing several years ago. People in rural Utah are creative; they’re used to creating solutions and solving problems with limited resources. They are makers. We’re building on that.
As I mentioned, through partnerships we developed over the years in the apparel manufacturing industry, we have advisors and trainers that make up the best in the industry, and I really mean the best. From Tukatech in Los Angeles to RBC Consulting in India, who are helping to train and educate our workers, they help us avoid the standard pitfalls people make when starting down this path. My advisors and I joke that I have a 24-hour hotline. When we encounter a problem, I can call someone in just about any time zone in the world and get an answer.
Once COVID-19 is over, we will begin our micro-factory creation program in partnership with Utah State University Eastern, where the students will learn every aspect of either running a micro-factory or product design. The program will operate a little like a teaching hospital, and USU is backing us up with certificate programs.
What can one of your team members make an hour?
We are essentially paying on a piecework basis, so we pay a lot of attention to making the process more efficient. It’s easy to make minimum wage, most are making about $15 to $16 an hour, and our more experienced workers are capable of making about $25 an hour. Our goal is to keep working at the model where $25-30/hour will be the average wage.
Those are sustainable wages in Price. You can rent a two-bedroom house and still have take-home income.
Bonus Question - What are we learning from this crisis?
Ironically, COVID-19 is really bringing our long-term mission to fruition -- the United States needs to have a robust sewn-goods manufacturing ecosystem. The country is realizing first hand how critical sewn-goods manufacturing is to the well-being of our citizens and the reliability that comes with having its production close to the consumer. This is something that was a hard sell prior; people were slowly coming to that conclusion, but the pandemic has created a very stark reality.
The presence of multiple micro-factories in rural communities will scale the benefits we are already starting to experience: a more sustainable economy, and we can help decrease the poverty rate in the region. We’re able to give people a vocational skill and another chance. We’re building a labor force that can bring manufacturing back to the United States, starting right here in Price. If we perform and deliver, we’ll make it happen.
We’re positioned to help bring a lot of outdoor product apparel manufacturing back. We’re hitting the quality and price mark…competitive with Mexico but with better quality. Once we’re at scale, it won’t be a hard sell.
For more information, visit www.futureindesign.org