Supreme Corp. jumps at chance to bring innovation into PPE realm
Posted April 30, 2020
By Devin Steele (DSteele@eTextileCommunications.com)
Supreme Corporation, based in Conover, N.C., has been on the cutting edge of innovation for years, particularly of late during the rise of the smart textiles segment.
So it’s hardly a surprise that the yarn and fabric maker, a 55-year-old “advanced textile science” company with 62 patents, would jump at the chance to shift gears and use the progressive nature of its operations to step into the world of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) during our nation’s time of great need.
Supreme did a “full pivot” and is now offering all medical supplies, including N95 and KN95 masks, medical gowns, isolation gowns, shoe and hair covers, gloves, etc. – all with either CE or FDA certification, according to CEO Matt Kolmes, a former New York City attorney. The company is also making a shaped knit mask with a filter pocket, and is selling N95 filters in packs of 30, 100 and 1,000.
“COVID-19 has a lipid layer, which is a fat,” he said. “This virus can be destroyed by washing in soap and water. You can wash the mask out each night and dry it and use a new N95 filter every 24 hours. We are pending for a finish that kills viruses. When the pandemic began, we were waiting for FDA approval to make virucidal claims. We hope to have that soon and add that finish to our textile masks and other fabrics.”
When orders stopped Supreme Corp.’s regular products, the company jumped at the chance to step up and help people, Kolmes said.
“We have an employee who sources our products,” he said. “She works from 8 p.m. until 4 a.m. every day checking factories and gathering prices, shipping terms, MOQs, lead times etc., and every day we update our spreadsheet. We have rolling shipments coming in each week. This was not our business in February. It will remain a good part of our business as long as we are needed. We looked at pricing to bring in a machine to make masks. We decided that was too slow of a solution.”
When the company decided to move into PPE, the first thing it needed was a computer program, Kolmes pointed out. Supreme designed the mask it wanted, then the programmer turned that design into a reality, he said. The company then went through several versions to get the fit right to conform to the face, before working to apply the antimicrobial finish to the mask and testing it for efficacy. Supreme uses antimicrobial every day, so it was already set up to apply it in its manufacturing process and test it in its lab, he added.
And, overall, pivoting did not represent a major hurdle for Supreme, he noted.
“Knitting is knitting,” he said. “We designed our high-end mask to come off the machine with no sewing at all. Sewers are hard to find. The knitting is well understood, so there was no learning curve there. Another bonus for us is that we sell knitted products and we are fully set up to pick, pack, ship, barcode and anything else that is needed, so that was in line with what we were doing before.”
Asked how quickly the decision to transition into PPE, Kolmes said, “about 30 seconds.”
“I honestly felt like we had no choice (but to transition into PPE),” he said. “As soon as I realized that we can make a difference, I knew we had to do it. I knew we had a responsibility to help as many people as we can. The fact that we keep the lights on and the doors open is great, too. If I was sitting at home waiting for this to go away, I would go crazy. I sleep good at night because each day we do our best.”
When the stay-at-home order came, Supreme’s core business, cut-resistant PPE, picked up, he said.
“We think that’s because our competitors were sourcing from China and Pakistan, and those countries were closed down,” he said. “We actually thought we might be one of the few companies that was going to benefit from the pandemic. Then a week later when enough states implemented stay-at-home rules, everything just stopped. One day we were getting orders and the next day everything went silent. That’s the moment when I saw fashion houses out in LA making cotton masks. While I admire their effort and their intentions, I was shocked at their yarn choice. A lot of companies are making cotton masks. Medical textiles need to be hydrophobic, so we put thought into how to make it the best way that we can.”
Partners help make it all possible
Supreme Corp. has not only remained fully staffed, but has added a few team members over the last few weeks, Kolmes said. One of its main partners is InnovaKnits, also based in Conover. “We could not have done it without them,” he said.
Now that the company has higher volume orders, it has partnered with a few companies in the U.S. and a few in South America in order to ramp up production, he added. Supreme should be able to make 26,000 flat knit masks starting next week, and South America is making a scaled-down version of the mask that is two layers, knitted and nonwoven on the inside, he said, and can produce 1 million pieces per week, he noted.
Supreme’s PPE products are being distributed to North American companies, and it is getting inquiries from South America and Japan, Kolmes added.
While the company is running wide open on one shift, there are gaps that could help product move quicker, he noted.
“Shipping is critically the bottleneck,” he said. “Shipping rules change daily. We had 33 boxes stuck at the airport for 11 days, and the carrier could not tell us why. This has been the most challenging part – moving raw materials around and getting in rolling shipments of supplies. We now ship only 5,000 masks at a time because we had 200,000 masks held at the airport with no explanation.”
Related to the sterilization of masks at a hospital, Kolmes said that Supreme Corp.’s partner, Kentucky-based CPG, designed a system to sterilize masks in a medical grade Ziplock-style bag using chlorine dioxide.
“We got him an FDA consultant and we are trying to fast track him through FDA to get emergency use authorization (EUA),” Kolmes said. “IF we get this, we will be able to sterilize masks without damaging the SMS textile that gives them their filtration properties. We hope by the end of this week to have that approval. This can be done anywhere without electricity or batteries.
“This is called the SOS system and we hope that this can have a huge impact on healthcare organizations needing to buy and throw away masks every day,” he continued. “This system would allow you to sterilize 30 or 40 masks at a time and that could be done four times to each mask.”
If orders increase, Kolmes said he hopes to make 100,000 flat knit masks a month by the end of June. For its two-layer masks, it is at the limit of its throughput at 1 million per week, he noted.
“I am proud to be a part of the effort to help people from getting COVID-19,” said Supreme Corp. Office Manager Ellen Knauf. “It feels good to know that we are helping.”
Added Judy Hawkins of the Credit Department: “I am glad that we can supply nursing homes with products like N95 masks. They need them and can’t find them.”
“I think some people are trying to take advantage of the pandemic,” said Huguet Valladares, senior accountant. “We are not – we are providing PPE at a critical time when people can’t get it and we are doing it responsibly.”
Said Kolmes: “Their comments from our team members make me proud.”
Already as part of its business, Supreme Corp., through its VOLT Smart Yarns unit, produces a GPS tracking system for police forces that detects impacts and reports officers’ locations to their headquarters. So the company received a call asking if it could track people’s interactions at 6 feet without invading privacy, a la Google and Apple putting a tracing app on phones, Kolmes said.
“So we came up with essentially a wristband or ‘Fitbit’ with a Bluetooth ‘sniffer’ in it,” Kolmes said. “It would work only in a location-based environment. Think of hospitals, schools, nursing homes, prisons and universities. The university could make it a condition of attendance or condition of being on campus that you wear the wristband. One battery lasts 1.5 years, so there is no need to take it off and charge it.
“You need data collection points – maybe the entrance and exit of campus,” he continued. “Maybe the cafeteria, or in the hospital, maybe where doctors and staff log in and out of the building. Anytime you get within 6 feet of someone wearing the bracelet, it records their serial number. If you ever get sick and test positive for COVID-19, we go in the back end of the software and download a list if everyone you have been within 6 feet of for the last four weeks.”
From that information, a “quarantine list” can be created, or a test list of people to track and make sure they are not asymptomatic carriers of the virus, he added. The cost of this device is $15, he added.
“Think about the cost of just one sick person hospitalized and intubated with the virus,” Kolmes said. “What is the cost savings if just one person is prevented from getting sick or prevented from dying? We showed this to USSOCOM (United States Special Operations Command) already. They asked some questions, but you never know what will move the needle with the military.”
All of these well-thought-out developments “give us a lot of arrows in the quiver to help fight the pandemic,” Kolmes said.