Custom sign maker Mountain Dog Sign Co. isn’t making many signs in the midst of a viral pandemic. The company has been manufacturing face shields and counter barriers—transparent partitions that separate customers from cashiers—to sell or donate to businesses such as health care clinics, construction companies, car dealerships, and casinos.
Founded in 2011 by owners Steve and Marshon Kempf, the Spokane Valley business typically produces interior and exterior signs, vehicle graphics, and ADA compliant signage.
The Journal spoke with Marshon, the company’s majority owner and president, via telephone about pivoting from signage to personal protective equipment, the challenges of sourcing materials suitable for shields and barriers, and the future of demand for locally made personal protective equipment.
Journal: Why did you decide to start making face shields and counter barriers?
Kempf: Early on, there was so much in the news about the expected shortages. We knew that they were going to need all hands on deck for producing personal protective equipment. We did a quick survey of our capabilities and realized that we had the infrastructure to be able to pivot fairly quickly to producing medical face shields. At that point, people were also looking for impermeable barriers (for counters and desks). Once we decided that we had the capability, we reached out to a handful of different sources, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and some other organizations, just to make sure we knew what they needed and if we were going to be able to contribute.
We’re constantly figuring out what the best solution is for a particular problem, which really goes into how do we come up with a valid type of face shield or counter barrier based on materials that we could source. We did some prototyping. Plastics were very hard to source at that point in time. Everybody started to do this at the same time. Our local supply was exhausted, and our national supply was really short. We had to figure out what materials we could source. We did some testing in our local area for medical and dental practitioners, just to make sure that what we were making was going to work.
When did you start producing the masks and barriers?
Early March. We started this right at the beginning of the whole COVID-19 thing.
Do you have any idea how many you’ve made so far?
We’ve made hundreds of face shields. We’ve sold many, and we’ve donated a bunch, but it has shifted. I think the need for the face shields was not as great as the nation thought it was going to be.
We also very early on started looking at the impermeable barriers. Those are the ones like you see at the grocery store. We don’t want something that’s going to be drilled into things. We’d rather have something that we can move, that’s going to accomplish the purpose but it’s not going to be structurally damaging, it needs to be able to be sanitized, and people need to be very clear about where they’re supposed to be. We’re making and selling hundreds of those as well.
That’s the beauty of these — we designed and made them in such a way that they come apart. People can easily transport them. They can also take them apart and put them back together. When COVID-19 passes — and we all pray that at some point it will — we’ll always have challenges, like with every flu season. The way that we created these, they’re very easy to take apart, store, and put back together at whatever time folks will need them.
Many people have been working from their homes for six weeks now, maybe eight weeks. We figure if some of these people have not been out or been out minimally, it’s very frightening for them to think of going into a store or going into a place where they have to have face-to-face interaction. That’s where the barriers come in. You’ve got a clear line of sight, but you’re also protected behind this barrier.
How did you end up finding plastics with the local supply exhausted?
I called companies all over the region. We ended up with a supplier that we’ve worked with previously on different acrylics and plastics that was able to source a couple of huge rolls of this stuff for us. We have a really good relationship with our local vendors, but the challenge is, there aren’t a lot of manufacturers that are using this type of thin material for their everyday production, so our local plastics companies don’t have it in stock, because it’s not something that most (manufacturers) generally use. That was part of the problem. In theory, we were going to be eight weeks out or longer to get (materials).
What portion of your business is currently devoted to making the shields and barriers?
It’s a pretty high percentage — 95% of our current work is production of COVID-19 PPE and counter shields, or COVID-19 signage for essential businesses. The other 5% is for businesses that are reopening, like Phase 1 construction.
Do you think demand for shields and barriers will continue? Could making shields and barriers become a more permanent part of the business?
It’s definitely within our comfort zone to make these. My feeling is that as more and more businesses open up, they’ll want to have something that is not permanent — everybody would like to preserve their beautiful counters and desks, and not have to damage them. That’s one of the reasons why we worked hard to develop something that’s sturdy, but portable.
It could be months, years. We don’t know how long we will need to continue to be very cautious about how we are interacting with people face to face. I’m anticipating that this is going to be an ongoing product for quite a while. We’ll have to wait and see what kind of progress is made against the virus itself.
The other thing is, every year we have flu season. Every year, there are still a lot of people who are within the population that are very vulnerable even to the regular flu. People are perceiving their environment and threats to their environment very differently. People are much more aware now of these transmittable diseases and are recognizing that something as simple as a face shield and a counter shield can do a huge amount of good in preventing the spread of these different types of contagious droplets.
How is the sign manufacturing business doing?
Construction is starting to open up … as the first phase of (state) governmental requirements for construction has phased in, we’re starting to see some of that business back on track.
We had a lot of stuff that we’d already produced that we were getting ready to install when all of this happened. It’s nice to see industries slowly starting to come back so that some of that product gets into the hands of the customers.
We’ve actually been producing a lot of COVID-related signage. That’s across all industries, pretty much any of the essential businesses that have stayed open needed very specific, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-directed signage to make sure that they were in compliance. That’s become a big part of our business, the ability to produce and get into the hands the required signage that businesses needed to keep their doors open.
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