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Staff file photo by Tim Barber/ Tuftco Corp. employees begin assembly of a new tufting machine at the Holtzclaw manufacturing plant in this file photo.

A 60-year-old Chattanooga company that's a leading maker of tufting machines for the carpet industry is re-calibrating some operations to build safety screens to protect people from COVID-19.

Tuftco Corp. plans to make the screens using a Plexiglass-type of material and put it on wheels so it's movable, said Mark Harman, vice president of global sales for the company's Tufting Systems Division.

"We'll put it on rollers," he said. "You can roll them around and separate people."

The advantage to such mobility is that when the coronavirus crisis passes, the safety screens can be moved out of the way, Harman said.

"There's no commitment to permanent things like having to bolt a screen into a counter, for instance," he said. Attaching a screen to a counter can damage it, the company vice president said.

Tuftco expects to produce about a half dozen of the safety screens a day as it uses its machine shop which is equipped with the needed tools.

The company is reaching out to hospitals, grocery stores and government entities. Harman said Oak Ridge National Laboratory is interested.

"A lot of people have shown a lot of interest," he said.

He said that an appropriate use could be at the former Alstom plant on Riverfront Parkway, where a 400,000-square-foot building will be redeployed for use as an alternative site to hold coronavirus patients if needed.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said the area is preparing for the worst.

"We're all hopeful that doesn't happen, but we don't want to be caught in a situation where we have underprepared in the community," Coppinger said.

Tuftco is one of a number of Chattanooga area companies which is reusing operations to produce needed items to protect people against the virus.

Christy Gillenwater, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's CEO and president, said innovation is part of the DNA of the local businesses.

"The business community is always mindful of what the needs are," she said.

Harman said Tuftco has purchased 500 sheets of Lexan, which is a clear polycarbonate resin thermoplastic. Tuftco will make thre different sizes of the safety screens, two of which will have two panels and one with three, he said.

The Tuftco official said the company typically uses Lexan as a window on its tufting equipment so operators can see the moving parts.

Harman said Tuftco isn't trying to make money off of the safety screens.

"Our No. 1 goal is to help our community and recoup most of the cost," he said.

With so much uncertainty in the world economy, Harman said Tuftco has furloughed some of its employees, though it continues to work on backlogged orders.

He said that the company, which typically employs about 150 people, sees business coming back after the virus runs its course.

"There are a lot of orders just sitting there," Harman said. "We feel like they'll come through."

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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