At Microbrush Inc.’s factory in Grafton, it takes about 20 minutes to make granulated resin into a COVID-19 testing swab.
More than 100 employees running the facility 24 hours a day have produced more than 20 million testing swabs since the company entered the market.
Microbrush, which historically has made dental supplies, has been making around 2.5 million COVID-19 testing swabs every week since this summer to aid in the coronavirus pandemic.
A large capacity for testing — and needed materials in the supply chain — is critical for monitoring and managing the spread of the disease, according to public health experts. In Wisconsin last week, well over 100,000 tests were administered, according to the Department of Health Services.
Throughout September, the number of new coronavirus cases has surged with hospitalizations reaching an all-time high. MicroBrush said it has plenty of inventory to support a surge and can scale to make 5 million or more tests per week.
Moving quickly to meet demand
This spring as the pandemic struck in the United States, vital supplies like nasal swabs to test for the novel coronavirus were in short supply. Those swabs looked a lot like what Microbrush made in Grafton.
“Sure enough, it’s something that we can make,” said Dave Sproat, the CEO of Young Innovations and Microbrush. Microbrush is a division of Young Innovations, a consumables manufacturer.
The technology needed to make these swabs and Microbrush’s core dental products is highly specialized.
It took about 90 days for Microbrush to shift its technology, typically used to make dental micro-applicators, to manufacture testing swabs and bring the new product to market.
The emergency response launched Microbrush into a new market.
In nonpandemic times, Microbrush would manufacture and package more than 500 million dental micro-applicators per year.
The dental industry was not considered essential during stay-at-home orders this spring. As a result, Microbrush was facing the possibility of furloughing most of its employees.
“We knew that it was going to be a dramatic drop-off for the business,” Sproat said.
Microbrush found that it could use its existing molds to make swabs. By the beginning of June, Microbrush had a new product on the market. It started selling with the Department of Defense as its biggest customer.
New company division comes from virus
Microbrush makes ready-to-use nylon flocked nasopharyngeal test swabs for COVID-19 testing that is typically done in hospitals. It plans to continue the line of business with a new medical division after the crisis subsides.
The 20-minute process starts with granulated resin traveling 50 feet through three different rooms until a finished, sterile, packaged COVID-19 testing swab is done.
Microbrush is making around 2.5 million COVID-19 testing swabs every week at its manufacturing site.
Microbrush made a huge investment — “tens of millions” of dollars, Sproat said — at the beginning to start making the swabs.
“We’re still pushing through on the commercial side,” Sproat said. “It’s still not profitable at this stage.”