State and federal mandates to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus have forced many businesses to temporarily close or suspend operations, leading to layoffs and furloughs across the country.

However, some industries have been able to continue operating, albeit with precautions in place to protect the health of employees.

Manufacturing companies in Verona have continued to operate during the pandemic. Four of those companies – Carnes Company, Hunzicker LLC, Big Sky Engineering and Engineering Industries have been able to continue operations in large part due to providing parts needed to respond to COVID-19.

Before the pandemic resulted in a national emergency March 13, Carnes Company, which manufactures heating, ventilation and air conditioning parts and products, already produced HVAC parts supporting hospitals and first responders.

Now, orders for hospitals are being prioritized, general manager Greg Cichon said, adding the company is trying to get them completed as quickly as possible.

“There are parts hospitals need to keep running, and we are building that product,” he said.

At Hunzicker, the changes have been felt more externally than within the business. The manufacturers’ representative for Carnes sells heating and ventilation equipment to customers including Epic Systems and Verona Area School District.

“Nothing has changed drastically,” Kevin Stampfli, co-owner of Hunzicker said. “The companies we represent and buy from are still up and going, so on that side of things, the virus hasn’t affected us.”

Big Sky Engineering is an automated design company, assembling machines to support manufacturing and packaging processes. Its automation equipment is used by automotive, biological and tech industries.

One of Big Sky’s main clients in Dane County, Exact Sciences, has been working with the state for the past few weeks to provide laboratory support in the testing of the coronavirus, a key component in ending the state’s Safer at Home order.

At Engineering Industries, which makes injection-molded parts and components, orders from several customers considered essential businesses have gone up including parts for air filtration, water treatment systems and ventilators.

However, other of Engineering’s key customers have slowed down or closed down business for the time being.

“It’s not a complete offset, overall business is down,” Dean VandeBerg, president of Engineering Industries said, “But we are confident we are going to make it through this and come through this better, it’s been a learning experience.”

Carnes keeping afloat via its backlog

Despite Carnes’ work for the health care industry, Cichon said, business is slowing down as the company has been working primarily off a backlog of orders.

Many of Carnes’ customers across the United States and Canada have been shut down because of the coronavirus.

“One day you get a lot of orders, then the next two days nothing. It isn’t a steady stream like we normally have,” Cichon said.

While some employees have taken voluntary vacations and those who can work from home have been, most of the machinists have continued working.

“People here are happy to be working and happy to be coming to work,” Cichon said. “The majority of people want to be here.”

The company has been researching moving over to the production of face shields to generate more work. However, Cichon said they’d have to purchase a large volume of inventory to bring prices down but don’t want to be stuck with extra inventory after the pandemic.

Cichon said it is not difficult for employees to remain physically distanced at work.

“We’re fortunate and blessed with a lot of space. If you take the number of people and the total square footage of the building, there’s 3600 square feet per person,” he said.

Hunzicker mostly feeling effects of virus during deliveries

At Hunzicker, much of its office staff have been able to work remotely.

The most significant change for Hunzicker has been on the delivery side of business. Stampfli says some places that Hunzicker delivers to now have signs on the doors with special requests for delivery.

“People are more cautious, more leery, although I wouldn’t say overly cautious. You can feel some of that in the air,” Stampfli said. “Truckers coming to pick up orders will say ‘we’d rather stay in truck if it’s okay with you.’”

Big Sky positioned itself for stability

For one local manufacturing company, Big Sky Engineering, being an asset to essential businesses during this pandemic is not a coincidence.

“The 2008-2009 disaster nearly shut us down. Since the last recession, my focus has been to get us into supporting industries that are more stable,” Mark Strasser, vice president of Big Sky said. “We put ourselves in a position – especially with life sciences – where those things don’t shut down.”

Strasser said that position helps the company survive when things are tough.

Big Sky initially shut down its assembly floor during the second week of the Safer at Home order, allowing its engineers to work remotely.

“Our first reaction was, ‘Gee, we need to look at shutting down,’” Strasser said, “But we continued getting calls from NorthStar, Cummins Filtration and Exact Sciences, saying they needed us to be able to continue their own operations.”

Within a few days of closing the assembly floor, Strasser changed course and resumed production processes. Strasser said 80% of employees at Big Sky work on the assembly floor.

“Situations like this expose all manufacturing to the need of having a strong workforce,” he said.

Strasser said Big Sky has been asked to respond to a variety of respiration assembly projects supporting health care and is increasing production in that area accordingly. He has committed the company to a six-week build and delivery of a machine that would normally take 18-21 weeks.

“We’re pulling out all stops to get that system done in a record amount of time,” he said. “It gives you satisfaction to know you are participating in the efforts.”

Strasser said if the pandemic continues for a long time, it might ultimately expand Big Sky’s business.

While Strasser said the facility is big enough to practice social distancing, some employees remain skittish.

For now, Big Sky has ceased doing all installations as a health safety precaution.

“I am questioning what’s essential. In the back of my head, I wonder ‘what if sickness does come through here?’ Those are things that are troubling,” Strasser said. “We came up with our own justification for being essential – that customers asked us to maintain demand.”

Engineering Industries learning and adapting

VandeBerg said that Engineering Industries is learning about sanitizing and cleaning throughout shifts. Meetings with its customers have shifted to video conferences.

The company has held small meetings with employees, keeping communication lines open. Like the other facilities, ample space has allowed for employees to spread out.

The company recently provided its employees with handmade face masks and has been more mindful of the vulnerability of its senior employees.

“Morale has been very good,” VandeBerg said.

Neal Patten, community reporter, can be contacted at neal.patten@wcinet.com.