New industrial revolution brings change, turmoil and opportunity

Ohio didn't make face shields and other personal protective equipment until the pandemic hit, shattering global supply chains. Manufacturers learned lessons about automation, cooperation and risk that may help moving forward as more companies aim to bring production back from abroad.

In the wee hours of Easter morning 2020 — as the pandemic raged and most people were sleeping — there was a quiet but important handoff happening in Ohio.

About 2 a.m. a group of about 20 companies turned over a 3D-printed mold to other manufacturers so they could begin making clear plastic face shields that would protect thousands of health care workers, state employees and other essential workers.

Until the pandemic, Ohio — the third-largest manufacturing state in the U.S., behind only California and Texas — didn’t produce personal protective equipment (PPE). But manufacturers, working with nonprofits and the state of Ohio, stepped up.

“They moved mountains,” said Ethan Karp, president and CEO of the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network, or MAGNET, that serves Akron, Cleveland and all of Northeast Ohio.

Karp said the story of how more than 2,000 Ohio companies ramped up PPE production within weeks is a parable for “onshoring,” or the return of manufacturing and production to the U.S. from overseas.

Ethan Karp, president and CEO of the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network, or MAGNET.

Onshoring is a trend that began before the pandemic as companies compared costs and feared geopolitics, natural disasters and other crises could interrupt their business.

And Karp, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted and others working with Ohio manufacturers say the desire to onshore has only accelerated since the pandemic.

How much manufacturing might return to Ohio, or grow anew in the state, is not yet clear.

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