CHICAGO (CBS) — As Illinois braces for an expected surge in COVID-19 cases, the state is preparing McCormick Place to serve as an emergency field hospital. CBS 2 Morning Insider takes us on a fascinating tour of a company literally switching gears to help with the crisis.

When the buzz of a “stay at home” order began, the hum halted at the Richards-Wilcox factory in west suburban Aurora.

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All 150 or so workers were told to power down, “with the uncertain future of not knowing when they were going to return to work,” Richards-Wilcox president Bob McMurtry said.

McMurtry knew he could reverse the shutdown if his operations were considered essential.

“I was thinking what can we do to preserve jobs, but more importantly, help with the COVID-19 crisis?” he said.

Then a lightbulb went off.

“We could convert one of our products into emergency beds,” he said.

With a little tweaking, machines used to make shelving units are now churning out the place coronavirus patients will rest their heads across the country.

“It had to be something that we could mass produce, so it needed to take advantage of what we already had tooled, and the equipment that we had in place to make high volume production parts,” McMurtry said.

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From laser-cutting sheets, to stamping out notches for the posts, to welding it all together, the combo of human and automated labor could crank out 500 emergency beds per shift.

While many businesses are laying off workers, Richards-Wilcox might need to start hiring if the COVID-19 outbreak worsens.

Orders in tens of thousands could come in, with states like Illinois, New York, California, and Louisiana already showing interest.

“It can be a bench, it can a desk or a table, and they can reconfigure it literally in a matter of a minute or two,” McMurtry said.

No tools are needed for the fast assembly or disassembly; and, as crucial as time is for this crisis, so is sanitation.

One of the last parts of the production line sends pieces into a giant oven, where a special powder is baked on.

“We have an antimicrobial paint, which prevents any virus from living on the surface of the paint,” McMurtry said.

At $470 apiece, the beds should be ready to ship by next Monday; complete with a mattress from the Elgin-based company Moonlight Slumber.

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The Richards-Wilcox factory will start mass production of the beds on Thursday. About 20 new hires will be needed if orders start pouring in.

Lauren Victory