The D’Addario musical accessories company has been through many ups and downs since its founder Carmine D’Addario (aka Charles) emigrated to Astoria, New York, in 1905, and began making sheep gut guitar strings in a shop behind his house.
But in 4 generations, the company had never ceased operations completely. Then COVID-19 hit the US.
In April, D’Addario found itself among the thousands of “non-essential” metro New York City businesses that were ordered to shut down during the first phase of the pandemic.
The company — one of the world’s biggest producers of instrument strings, picks, capos, drum heads, woodwind reeds, and the like— has deep manufacturing roots that go back to the 17th century in central Italy.
Idleness is definitely not a D’Addario family trait. So, as they pushed the pause button on the production machinery, the company’s owners started brainstorming.
“Our first priority was to keep everyone safe. But a small team of us got together to assess what was going on and how to respond. We saw there was a dire need for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in the New York area, and we started thinking about how we could help,” says John D’Addario, III, the company’s current CEO.
“One thing led to another, and we realized that the mylar film we use to make drum heads could be used for face shields to help New York State workers.”
So it was that the world’s most popular guitar string brand became a full-time producer of medical PPE.
“We’re a highly vertically integrated company. We have die-cutting equipment. We have a design team. We started coming up with designs so we could use the mylar for our drum heads to make face shields. Within weeks, we were able to retrofit our equipment, we had a production process, and we had work cells in place,” D’Addario told Holistic Primary Care.
The company’s Chief Innovation Officer Jim D’Addario, led a team of engineers who worked diligently to develop the face shields from the clear film used to make the popular Evans G2 drumhead. The membrane that put the groove into thousands of popular songs, was quickly repurposed to protect millions of peoples’ lives.
D’Addario named the new PPE venture “Project Excelsior,” after New York State’s motto.
By the peak of last Spring’s COVID surge, D’Addario was producing in the range of 100,000 face shields per week. By October, they’d sold over 1.5 million, primarily through medical equipment suppliers. The company’s shields are also being used by fire departments and some retail businesses.
The shift into PPE production not only allowed D’Addario to remain in operation and to keep its employees working; it actually enabled the company to expand and evolve.
“We got awarded an Empire State Development Committee grant to further automate our process, so we could make it more efficient, and better quality,” John D’Addario explained. The company used the $342,000 grant to expand the face shield production process, with the goal of improving efficiency, lowering costs, and doubling output.
In October, New York State Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Hochul visited D’Addario’s factory in Farmingdale, NY, to present the award.
“At a time when we were scouring the earth in search of personal protective equipment, New York State’s manufacturers like D’Addario answered the call to support our COVID-19 frontline heroes,” Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul said. “We are proud to support our innovative manufacturers who are stepping up to save lives and are a model for how we build back better for the post-pandemic future.”
Relationship with FDA
Face shield production was a major shift away from the D’Addario’s core business in guitar strings, but it is not the company’s first foray into the medical world. A division of D’Addario called Dynatomy, produces FDA-approved ergonomic hand-grip and dexterity exercise tools.
Some of Dynatomy’s devices can be used as drug-free treatments for carpal tunnel syndrome, repetitive strain injuries, and arthritis. “Dynatomy started in 2017, and the origin of that division stemmed from hand exercise accessories for musicians. So when we shifted into PPE, one fortunate thing we had going for us was that we were already registered with the FDA.”
D’Addario is the world’s largest instrument string manufacturer. Prior to the pandemic it was spinning out roughly 750,000 individual strings per day from its Long Island factory.
“We work 3 shifts a day, 24 hours a day, 6 days a week,” D’Addario says, adding that the company makes most of its own raw materials, and designed most of its manufacturing equipment.
A Million Strings
With so many people now spending more time at home, and fewer outside activities, interest in playing musical instruments is surging.
“Our guitar business is booming. We can’t produce the strings fast enough,” D’Addario told Holistic Primary Care. “People are reinvigorating their old interests, or starting anew due to sheltering in place. The demand is now for a million strings per day, and we’re scrambling to keep up.”
While that bodes well for D’Addario’s future, the COVID economy also presented major challenges. Demand for school band accessories is way down, and with live music and theater in suspended animation all over the globe, sales to professional musicians have also dwindled.
But the pandemic has also provided a stimulus for innovation that may open entirely new opportunities for D’Addario.
For example, a few weeks after their face masks went into wide use, the D’Addario team became aware that many people who used the shields had problems with fogging and reduced visibility. This prompted the development team to seek out special anti-fogging mylar to eliminate the problem.
John D’Addario III says the company is also in the early stages of exploring potential medical uses for the various types of wire it manufactures for instrument strings.
The D’Addario company’s response to COVID is just one shining example of the ways that American businesses have risen to the common challenge.
“I could not be prouder of the ingenuity and genuine care of our family of employees at D’Addario in helping those in need of PPE materials,” the CEO says. “I am equally proud of not only the leadership of New York State in how they have navigated the uncertainty of COVID-19 but also their willingness to partner with companies like ours to truly make a difference in protecting people.”