Firms keep revenue flowing, fill need amid Pamdemic

Wednesday, April 15, 2020
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In this Wednesday April 8, 2020 photo, provided by Appareo Systems, workers at Appareo build ventilators at the company’s plant in Fargo, N.D.

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Some North Dakota companies have switched gears amid the coronavirus outbreak to make products in short supply, from germkilling hand cleaner to machines that assist breathing.

A Fargo tech company has retooled to make muchneeded ventilators, while entrepreneurs and distilleries are racing to make hand sanitizer, which has become hard to find amid the outbreak.

Business owners said the shift has helped keep revenue flowing and people employed. And it fills a critical need as the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus continues to climb in North Dakota.

Health officials said Friday nine more people had tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the state total to 278. One additional death was reported Friday, raising the state’s total to seven.

“In reality, what we are doing now is the most important thing at this time,” said Joel Kath, owner of Proof Artisan Distillers in Fargo, which has shifted from making whiskey, bourbon, vodka and gin to hand sanitizer.

The company makes about 600 gallons daily using alcohol from the Tharaldson Ethanol factory in nearby Casselton. The distiller’s “tasting room” has been transformed into a hand sanitizer distribution center. The company’s five full-time employees are helped by an additional 20 volunteers and part-time workers.

Appareo Systems is aiming to provide 2,000 lowcost ventilators to the state by the end of the month, with employees working around the clock at its Fargo factory, said April Steffan, the company’s marketing director.

The company specializes in tech systems for aerospace, agriculture and defense and has about 170 employees. Steffan said no employees have lost their jobs but some have been “cross-trained” to build the ventilators.

The state Department of Emergency Services awarded the company $4 million to build the ventilators. North Dakota had about 400 before the coronavirus outbreak, most privately owned at hospitals. The state has only about 18.

Chemical engineering student and biofuel factory worker Andrew Knable said he would never have bet he’d be on the front lines of helping to manufacture hand sanitzer.

“This is completely unprecedented,” said Knable, a 25-year-old University of North Dakota student who works at the Red River BioRefinery in Grand Forks. “But it is incredible that people are taking an interest in helping as many people as they can. I am very fortunate to be able to help.”

The Grand Forks plant designed to produce ethanol from agriculture waste products came on line early last month but immediately shifted production to pure alcohol to make hand sanitizer, said Jacek Chmielewski, a principal of BioMass Solution, the Middleton, Wisconsin-based company that operates the plant.

The shift was done partly because of weak ethanol prices but mostly because of the need for alcohol, the main ingredient in hand sanitizer.

“We had to pivot to help out,” Chmielewski said. “It’s not that big of a change for us.”

The plant, which is supplying alcohol to two distillers in eastern North Dakota, has been operating nonstop with about 30 workers, Chmielweski said. The company so far is providing the alcohol to distillers at cost, he said.

Alice Anderson and her husband, Marlo, began selling the jugs of hand sanitizer last week at their computer repair store in Mandan. They’re selling more than 1,500 gallons daily at $35 a gallon.

It’s being produced at a plant across the Missouri River in Bismarck, using alcohol from Red Trail Energy’s ethanol plant in Richardton and safflower seed oil from Invigoils’ processing plant in Bismarck, which has added more than a dozen employees to keep up with demand, Marlo Anderson said.

“We’re running out daily,” Alice Anderson said. “We’re selling all we can.”

Kath, the owner of the distillery in Fargo, said he doesn’t know yet what his costs are for producing the hand sanitizer, and he may be losing money. Firstresponders, law enforcement and senior centers get priority for the product that sells for $30-$40 a gallon.

“I will worry about the bean-counting at the end of the day,” he said.