Lewis remains at full rifle production

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Lewis Machine and Tool won defense department authorization to keep its Eldridge plant open, where its 145-member staff is working three shifts, six days a week, with a sanitary wipe down on Sundays.

LMT chief operating officer Jim Jessup said the company is focused on its $25 million rifle contract with Estonia, and is partnering with one of three firms competing for an even bigger contract to provide replacements for U.S. standard issue M4 and M249 rifles.

He said the spacious, two-year-old Eldridge plant offers safe production options that would not be possible if the company remained in its smaller, Milan, Ill., plant.

“Milan would have been a lot tougher to have social distancing in a building about 25 percent the size of this one,” he said. “We weren’t thinking about that when we moved, but sometimes it’s good to be lucky.”

Jestel said workstations remain far enough apart to avoid contact. Employees eat lunch and take breaks at tables spread throughout the facility, or in their cars in the parking lot.

“We’ve got a letter from the Department of Defense telling us we’re part of defense industrial base. So we’ll be open unless we hear differently from a state agency. I’d be surprised if the state would actually trump a defense department notification.”

Jessup said his company is “deep into our Estonia contract.”

The nation last year committed to the Lewis rifles. He said virus precautions have prevented Estonia representatives from visiting the plant to help expedite the order.

He also confirmed his company partnered with Textron to bid on a U.S. military contract for M4 and M249 rifles. Lewis would provide suppressors and other attachments to Textron rifles. This partnership is competing against new weapons designed by Sig Sauer and General Dynamics for a contract to be awarded in about a year.

“It’s still in initial phases. It’s down to us and Textron and two others. Each participant is getting a small contract to make prototypes. It could be a very big deal,” he said.

He said Lewis remains on the hunt for experience computer assisted manufacturing workers.

Jessup said all staff remains at work, save one. He worked from his Maquoketa home where he was under precautionary quarantine after returning from a business trip to Europe.

He said the virus cut the trip short, and left him struggling to get home, where he quarantined for two weeks.

“We have a few employees who have other health issues," he said. "We’ve asked, and they’ve asked if they would work remotely. But for the most part, all employees are coming as they need to. It’s hard to have machinists and others in a manufacturing environment work from home.”

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