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NextFab Q&A Webinar with Oat Foundry CEO & Founder, Mark Kuhn

On April 24th, NextFab hosted a webinar with our CEO Mark Kuhn to gain insight on Oat Foundry’s experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. Oat Foundry shifted focus from manufacturing Split Flaps to Face Shields upon Governor Wolf’s Non-essential Business shutdown on March 19th and has since supplied municipalities, businesses, and hospitals with thousands of PPE’s.

Q: Tell us a little bit about Oat Foundry and your tagline, “We Build Cool Stuff.”

A: We started this company seven years ago with me and five other mechanical engineers that went to Drexel. The seed for the start of our company was a pretzel factory vending machine that we made for the Philadelphia Pretzel Factory. The idea was; “how can we use an engineering mindset which is basically just systematic problem solving and creativity to create a vending machine for hot soft pretzels?” That was sort of project number one and we looked at each other after completing and we said: “We should start a company.” 

The first year we set up a workshop in Bensalem. We were making things like record dividers, custom furniture, and custom interactions for brands – those started to get bigger with time. As time went on, individuals started coming to us saying, “I don’t know how to make this thing and I want to make a thousand of them. How do I do that?”. 

A big momentum shift in Oat Foundry’s history was this Split Flap Display project. With rapid growth starting, we moved to the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia; a 6500 square foot shop space with another auxiliary space across the hall that’s another 6500 square feet. Our range of tools expanded too – CNC routers, lasers, and electronics. 

Oat Foundry has four core values that we put on the shop wall; Build Cool Stuff, Grow Purposefully, Give a Damn, and Have Fun. We’ve grown in staff from the original six of us to 15 full-time here.

Q: Getting into the current crisis, can you tell me a little bit about that moment when you decided Oat Foundry needed to be involved, what was that decision like what prompted it?

A: It goes back to the core value – “Build Cool Stuff”. We want to build stuff that makes people go, “damn that’s cool”. That’s a good segue to another value, “Give a Damn”, which means we have a social responsibility to help our community. 

Regarding the PPE development timeline, Gov. Tom Wolfe announced that they’re going to be shutting down non-life-sustaining businesses. Once that happened, my partners and I looked at each other and said we have all of the LEGO pieces of a life-sustaining business. We just have to make the output of our LEGO pieces that business. Split Flaps are not a life-sustaining business. They are a really cool product, but right now they are not what is needed. What is needed are various kinds of PPE and medical equipment so we developed a plan, very rapidly, to get the green light to run. We received a waiver to stay open from the state on March 22nd and then we started our process. 

We said, “let’s get something out as fast as possible that is very sturdy and durable so it can be used as long as possible.” We started prototyping and reaching out to medical professionals to see what they like and what they don’t like so we can figure out what materials are best for the people that will be using the Face Shields. We began making face shields as they were the fastest product that we could get out. As of now, we can produce about 1,500 per day so that gives us about 9,000 a week.

Q: What was your thinking about staying open? Staying open in general or focusing on keeping people employed?

A: Both. Businesses aren’t magic, they may require some input in the form of raw materials, inventory, and revenue and they have an output which is products and paying their people. We built this whole company around optionality. Oat Foundry had the option to simply shut down and tell our employees that everyone’s going to be furloughed or we’re going to have to let them go. Closing the doors and weathering the storm was certainly one option on the table. We also looked at the tools and the skill sets of our people that we have in front of us. 

With the core value of “Give a Damn”, we know we have an obligation to at least give it a shot and at least try to help in some way.

Q: Why do you think makers have been among the first to respond to the PPE shortages?

A: There’s the idea in a maker’s mentality that they have this first-responder responsibility of pitching in and helping. I think it’s that we make stuff, we beat back entropy, and we do this because it’s not only gratifying but there is satisfaction in seeing the utility you’ve made have a purpose in the world so there is satisfaction there. When I’m going to sleep, I’m not thinking about all of the thousands of people that are hurting right now, I’m only thinking about what I can do to help them. In my position as CEO, from a maker’s perspective, knowing that you’re helping someone else’s needs absolutely changes my brain chemistry. This thinking helps to stay sane and busy – I believe that’s what keeps us going.

Q: As a business leader, are you encouraging your employees to focus on your slice of the pie or focus on the overarching need? 

A: The idea of this being overwhelming makes you pick your battles. Stop listening to everyone else and act for yourself. In the early days of this shutdown, people were trying to get waivers to work so we thought internally. We thought of the damage of going to work which can spread the virus, so we have to put in policies to keep our employees safe. Easy. 

We then thought that the punitive risk of not acting was higher than the risk of acting. We’re not a thousand-person plant that is worried about social distancing, so we have a lot of control over that. We benefit from moving very quickly and having this ride or die mentality, so we looked at this situation and said yes, we can shut down, but if we don’t get these face shields into the hands of healthcare professionals and food service workers, that risk is higher for the people that need them.

Q: What advice would you give to small manufacturer entrepreneurs who are preparing to switch their day-to-day activities due to COVID?

A: My advice would be to set some structure into place on how you make decisions. Gather your leadership team and say; “normally we would review these types of products and production metrics once a month, but now we will be reviewing them twice a week because things are changing so quickly.” An example of this is when we buy raw ingredients. We have a decent idea of what the cycle is going to look like for turning those into products that then ship out the door. This situation makes this process much more challenging because the availability of raw materials fluctuates each day. In order to spend $20,000 on sheets of plastic on a Monday, we might ask ourselves, “do we want to do this or not?” Then, we need to see if people are actually interested in the product before we get ahead of ourselves. With the high demand for these raw materials right now, that plastic is gone the next day. We’re trying to hold as little inventory of raw materials as possible so that other people can have access to it as well. 

Make sure to have a product roadmap in mind if you’re thinking of switching over. Think of how much the change will cost, how much you need to change your current production process, and think of how you will get back to your main focus after all of this is gone. 

Q: Do you think that some of these changes that you are currently implementing are going to be longer-lasting? Such as these work from home policies or the communication structure you have in place? 

A: Oat Foundry hired a remote employee full-time before all this started. He works outside of Pittsburgh so we had to develop some of the skill sets around remotely present to clients, hosting remote meetings, and remotely building company culture.

“Have Fun” is one of our core values so we want remote employees to be able to enjoy that as much as the in-office employees. By implementing a remote employee, we got a little bit of a head start on what we’re calling the new normal of remote work. There are a lot of resources out there to help with remote working that I would encourage other companies to use. Working from home can open the door to a happier employee. You can wake up, get some work done, maybe do yoga, and get some more work done. The total workday might be a little longer but it’s punctuated by more moments of self-care which can lead to a happier employee which has led to dramatic increases in productivity. From a psychology perspective, a happier person working is happier overall.

Q: From what it sounds like, you like to think about the future but you’re focused on the present. Is that true? 

A: We have a balance in both worlds. Right now, worrying about the present can be pernicious because you could spend all day worrying about what is going on and not actually get anything done. Taking a break from the news occasionally or choosing where you get your news can then have a dramatic effect to understand how it stresses you out. To be honest, the current issue still keeps me up at night. As much as I try to follow my own logic here, I still find myself worrying about it so I have to practice self-discipline to knock that down. 

Keeping an eye on the future while also staying in the present is important because there will be life after coronavirus. It’s certainly consuming much of our brain power and resources right now but there will be a future. In order to make that future a reality, you have to envision that future.

Q: Who are the reputable sources for you specifically in the manufacturing world and more specifically for demand, how do you know what products you can actually produce?

A: The FDA has control over class 1, class 2, and class 3 devices. We’ve conducted plenty of research on that space and made use of connections with other CEOs who are more familiar with what the guidelines are. Reaching out to the FDA themselves has been surprisingly transparent for us. We worked on figuring out how to make an emergency ventilator based on an MIT and New York consortium design and how to make that here in Philadelphia. For the guidelines that have been released under emergency use authorization, we realized it’s possible for a company like mine to work with. It takes a lot of resources to get a project like that off the ground. It’s work we’re uniquely capable of doing but there’s still a lot of navigation of that red tape despite how much of it’s been cut. You still have to get quite a bit of it right because they’re not willing to accept just anything.