COPING WITH COVID
Textile companies, suppliers forge ahead while dealing with pandemic
Posted October 22, 2020
By Devin Steele (DSteele@eTextileCommunications.com)
The coronavirus pandemic had multiple effects on the textile industry, whether or not they pivoted into Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) manufacturing, maintained production of their typical product lines or temporarily shuttered altogether.
We surveyed several companies in the industry to find out how they have fared throughout COVID-19, what changes they may have made to deal with the crisis and whether or not things are returning to “normal.” Following are reports from respondents.
The COVID-19 crisis has definitely affected the business of American Truetzschler, the U.S. arm of Germany-based OEM Trützschler GmbH, said CEO Stefan Engel.
The spinning business came almost to a complete stop, projects were put on hold and sales in spare parts and service (card clothing service) dropped more than 70 percent, he added. Other areas such as nonwovens seemed to keep running, though, as most of its customers in this business segment did supply goods and services to the hygiene and protective equipment sector, he noted.
“Many machines operating in the nonwovens market are old and could not deliver the output and efficiency of the demand caused by COVID,” Engel said. “This caused several customers to overthink their CAPEX, which started a wave of requests for new equipment. Today, business is back to almost normal since most of our spinning customers resumed production.”
American Truetzschler, based in Charlotte, N.C., has not closed its doors at any time during the crisis as it had several requests from customers to keep certain services running. Therefore, it decided to keep essential operations running, which turned out to be the right decision, he added.
In June, the company had to furlough almost 50 percent of its staff for several weeks, and most office jobs were performed from home, Engel said. Its card clothing production was cut in half and most of its service technicians were standby at home, he added. But today, personnel are working as much as they were before COVID-19 hit, he pointed out.
The company took safety measures very seriously, and did send all employees home that could work from home in the beginning, he said. In production, it split up shifts to achieve a reduced workforce presence by 50 percent and ensure that workers were not close to each other. The firm also mandated mask wearing (masks provided by the company) and had sanitizers throughout the facilities.
American Truetzschler did apply for assistance through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPE) and was granted funds, Engel said. “But a few weeks later, we decided to return the money in full as lawmakers kept switching the rules back and forth. Being an international organization the rules at the beginning were clear, as the number of employees had to be under 500. This applies to American Truetzschler (American jobs). But later on, the rule changed to count the jobs worldwide, which disqualified us from the program.”
Most of its customers now are back operating at over 80 percent capacity, while the nonwovens business has remained at full capacity during the entire crisis, Engel said.
While many are optimistic that a manufacturing movement to the U.S. will occur post-pandemic, Engel said he isn’t totally convinced.
“I personally do not think that COVID will change much of the textile business long term in the U.S.,” he said. “COVID at some point will be a thing of the past and economic factors will rebalance soon. Besides, in the production of yarn, I do not think the U.S. is that competitive at this point. We have a great opportunity in many areas to bring back production to the U.S., given that energy is abundant and cheap compared to the rest of the world, a stable political environment and a fantastic infrastructure, among many other supportive factors. Unfortunately, the main factor is that labor cost is still a key component in the total cost of manufacturing. This is one of the major barriers to overcome and that makes us less competitive compared to many countries. Environmental regulations may add to it. Key components that may change this in the future are automation and innovation.”
Technical textiles and engineered fabrics producer Cotswold Industries, a current supplier to various U.S. government entities, moved quickly to reposition its USA manufacturing assets to produce PPE materials in large quantities, according to CEO James McKinnon.
“We were fortunate in that our commercial workwear products were well suited for dual-use PPE production so that we were able to pivot quickly to address the unprecedented demand,” he said, especially around its Saxon Shield line of medical barrier fabrics. “Our durable water-repellent and antimicrobial chemistry is applied to all our products, so that we produce reusable products that are high performance as well as being sustainable.”
Based in New York City, the company’s five factories in the Carolinas and Georgia were all deemed essential when the country began sheltering in place, he said.
Cotswold has several differentiators in the world of PPE manufacturing and materials, McKinnon said.
“Our focus as a company revolves around producing value-driven fabrics that are also as sustainable as possible,” he said. “Our innovation team took up the challenge to use the demand opportunity to develop an isolation gown PPE product called ‘Eco-Shield’ that is made from 100 percent recycled plastic bottles. We felt that if given the chance to show what we could manufacture in this country, that FEMA, DOD and various private healthcare companies would see the great value in an American-made, innovative and purpose-driven partnership.”
With so many disruptions to retail consumption and manufacturing during this crisis, McKinnon spoke to the resilience and collaboration of the U.S. textile industry.
“Like many businesses, 2020 has been very tough on USA textiles companies that were heavily focused on apparel and/or home furnishings,” he said. “However, as an industry, we have banded together to use as much production capacity as possible to drive protection PPE fabrics to our healthcare heroes. Our industry has had many success stories around re-creating broken supply chains, and we feel that those will continue to pay dividends in new and effective ways of meetings the challenges of our ‘new normal.’ ”
Regarding Cotswold’s NYC head office, the company has been fortunate to have had its IT infrastructure put 100 percent into a cloud-based solution several years ago, McKinnon noted.
“We were able to seamlessly switch to working from home without any issues,” he said. “Our managers and associates that are required to be on site received rigorous training and were issued protective equipment so that they feel and stay as safe as possible.”
Frankl & Thomas
Greenville, S.C.-based Frankl & Thomas, a systems, machines, parts and equipment supplier for textile manufacturing, said shutdowns in the industry during the pandemic greatly affected its business, according to President Al Thomas.
“North Carolina shut down most of the textile plants, which hit us hard,” he said. “Second-quarter sales of our line of textile parts and accessories were half of first-quarter sales. Nonetheless, we squeaked out a small profit for the first six months of 2020.”
In the third quarter, sales were down 20 percent, added Mike Alexander, vice president and general manager.
“We were limited by not being able to make personal sales calls,” he said.
Frankl & Thomas was closed on Fridays during much of the ongoing crisis except for its warehouse, where the company was able to accept, process and ship orders, Alexander said. The company also continued to pay its employees 100 percent of their salary and family health insurance, he noted.
“Frankl & Thomas employees are our greatest asset, and we did not want to lose anybody or cause our employees to have reduced pay,” he said.
Kamber Narrow Fabric Machinery
Kamber Narrow Fabric Machinery LLC, Birmingham, Ala., initially was forced to shut down when the pandemic was spreading, as it was not initially deemed essential.
But the company was able to reopen after reaching out to the governor’s office and filling out paperwork. Upon reopening, the firm took strict measures regarding PPE equipment and followed CDC guidelines strictly, according to David Giltz, director of Sales – North America.
The company posted information about safety and health guidelines all over the office, warehouse and shop, he added. Kamber also had regular training meetings with all personnel to review procedures and update everyone on the latest information.
Every employee, along with any visitors, has their temperature checked upon arrival and noted in a log, Giltz said. The company disinfects every afternoon and sprays a mixture of water, Clorox and Simple Green on all surfaces that may have been touched during the day by employees, including their work areas. Employees are told to not come in if they are sick at all and a sign to that effect is on the outside of the doors for visitors and vendors.
“We evaluated the risks, took into account the age and health of the employees and combined with a fear of the unknown at that time decided to shut down for two weeks,” Giltz said. “Everyone received their full pay, however, and we have not had to furlough anyone so far and do not anticipate doing so at this time, as Kamber’s ownership realizes that our employees are our most important aspect and asset.”
He added: “Not only have we reduced travel on our end, but we actually reached out to inform visitors who wanted to come and buy machines that because of Alabama being on a list of states with the highest risk that they would have to quarantine when they returned home!” he said. “While this cost us business in the short term, it strengthened our relationships with these customers, as it was the right thing to do.”
During the crisis, Kamber developed a rental program to help its customers during these uncertain times, Giltz said. Quite a few companies had expressed that they were seeing an uptick and needed more machines, but were nervous about a long-term investment and the capital outlay involved, he pointed out.
“We built looms to their needs, and they rent them for $500 a month, with a six-month commitment and a 30-day quit notice required,” he said “If they decide to buy, then all monies paid in rent apply to the purchase price. This has proved very successful and is beneficial to both parties.”
Kamber’s management noticed swings in demand, with lulls, and then increased requests for quotes, according to Giltz.
“The people who were pivoting to the PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) market needed machines configured differently with what they currently had, and we are the best in the market to get custom-built machines to them in generally less than two weeks for an NF type. This enabled them to quickly pivot and, when combined with our rental program, gave them and us much more flexibility.”
During the two waves of increased and decreased demand that the company had seen since the start of the pandemic, Kamber is at about 40 percent of its budget year to date, Giltz said. The company is now seeing increased demand and is hopeful of finishing the year strong, he added.
“Election years are always difficult in the best of times and during a pandemic obviously even more trying,” he said.
Business is picking up, but has yet to reach normal levels yet, Giltz noted. The international side has been picking up as of late, which he said makes sense as the pandemic hit them earlier than in the U.S.
Regarding the push to reshore U.S. manufacturing, he said he believes that it will get legislative traction as the attempt to get PPE equipment added to the Berry Amendment, he opined.
“If it does come back strong, we are concerned about the lack of a trained workforce,” he said. “There needs to be attempts to make the textile industry sexy again in order to attract younger people.”
Lang Ligon & Co.
Greenville, S.C.-based Lang Ligon & Co., an agent for a number of international textile suppliers, saw its business slow like many others when the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading in the U.S., said Harrell Ligon, whose father founded the company with his namesake in 1962.
“Business, phone calls and emails all fell off, but we continued with a full staff at full hours and full pay, believing the ‘good old days' would eventually arrive to ‘adequate new days,’ before too long a time,” said Ligon, whose company was deemed essential. “We’re still thinking that, but we’re having to squint a bit to keep the vision.”
However, even during the downturn, the company added a customer support technician, he said.
“These quieter days are good for training, and one day we will need this newly trained, additional person,” he said.
Some of its customers did indeed pivot into Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), which kept them busy and, in effect, helped suppliers such as Lang Ligon & Co., he said.
Ligon added that the crisis shined a bright light on the dependence of foreign-made goods and the importance of U.S. manufacturing.
“(The movement onshore) has begun and it will accelerate in the coming months,” he said. “Congress and the administration are getting involved to right some past ‘wrongs’ that disincentivized domestic production. More than tax factors are pressing a return of some more domestic manufacturing, but it will be gradual.”
Finishing machine OEM Navis TubeTex, Lexington, N.C., had a very large backlog at the beginning of the crisis, so for the first few months didn’t really affect the company’s business, said President & CEO Will Motchar.
But the company did see customers begin to delay new orders and even a few customers asked the company to hold finished machines for later shipment, he added.
“The last few months have been very slow for manufacturing as we have shipped the machines in the backlog at the beginning of the pandemic, but very few new orders came in,” he said. “However, during the entire time our customers have continued discussions on new projects, but with delayed expected order dates. In the last few weeks many of these projects have turned into orders. So our engineering and manufacturing areas are now very busy.”
Navis TubeTex does have several customers that make PPE and materials for the government, including the military, which also has helped spur business, Motchar said.
During the first few months of the pandemic, the firm was still running at full capacity, but business slipped to the 25 percent range, he said. “But we will be back to 100 percent beginning in November,” he said.
The company did have to furlough some employees, but most have been brought back, with the remaining effected employees expected back within weeks, he noted. “In fact with the surge of orders we will be adding new employees,” he said.
Navis did make one unique pivot: It put its engineering resources into a project to develop an automated system for sanitizing shopping carts, Motchar pointed out.
“We built a prototype for proof of concept and the system is now ready,” he said. “You will see these machines in grocery stores in the near future.”
Motchar added that he is “definitely” seeing better times ahead in the near future. “It is looking like 2021 will be one of the best years in the history of the company,” he said.
Looking ahead at the prospect of a U.S. manufacturing resurgence, Motchar said: “I think this pandemic and situation with PPE in particular has highlighted the U.S. dependence on foreign countries for critical materials. I do think there will be some level of bringing production of textiles back to the U.S. The question will be, when this pandemic is over and just a memory, what happens then?”
As a sales, service and distributorship of a product line for Italy-based BTSR, Kernersville, N.C.-based PAF Sales saw its business “come to a screeching halt,” as no companies would allow personnel in for a several weeks, said General Manager Scott Yates.
But that situation has now changed due to the protocols that have been put in place, he said, after the company went completely virtual from a sales perspective for the first few weeks.
As a supplier to several medical textile manufacturers, PAF Sales was deemed essential, and did not have to modify its workforce numbers at all, he added.
“The demand in products that we supply majorly turned to those customers that shifted or maintained their PPE manufacturing,” Yates said. “We saw record sales months due to those customer needs exploding.”
In summarizing the past few months, he added: “We started the year like every other year with 2020 preset sales budgets, and out of the wild blue comes the pandemic. All of those budgeted projects were placed on hold. This was a devastation for us. Then along came the wave of orders from the PPE manufacturers. This actually helped us surpass our original budgeted projects. It was like an instant gratification that still has yet to stop. Now, six months later, those original budgeted projects are starting to surface. We were so fortunate.”
Looking beyond the crisis, Yates said that the fact production is coming back to the USA, there is a “true trend for automation engineering firms popping up everywhere,” he said.
“We supply automation products, so we have 15 to 20 of those type of customers in the works,” he said. “Automation will be replacing the need for cheap labor from other countries. So from the proven trend that we are experiencing, it’s not just lip service (that U.S. manufacturing is returning).”
From the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, High Point, N.C.-based Piedmont Chemicals has been careful to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and industry best practices, as both evolved, said Frank Little, sales manager, Specialty Chemicals.
“Early on, we were extremely protective of our employee population, as this is the lifeblood of our manufacturing and delivery process,” he said. “As guidelines have evolved, so have our protocols to protect the safety and health of our workers. We have become very proficient in the use of technology to replace face-to-face meetings.”
Deemed an essential business, the company did not have to furlough any employees and has actually had to hire several new ones since the pandemic hit, Little said. As its textile customers shifted to PPE, so did its product promotion emphasis, he added.
“Together, we all learned about the different levels of PPE and the fabric specifications required for each level,” he said. “We developed technical answers to address the production questions from our customers.”
As for a “light at the end of the tunnel,” Little said it is too soon to tell.
“For the remainder of 2020, much of the textile finishing business appears to be focused on PPE,” he said. “Additionally, we are starting to see indicators of non-COVID-related business returning, but the volumes are nowhere near pre-COVID levels. We hear some of our customers predicting certain segments of the apparel business returning to ‘normal’ in Q1 2021. Time will tell.”
Asked to look ahead, Little said he hopes that U.S. manufacturing in general will benefit from the unfortunate situation it found itself in during the crisis.
“We need the Congress to pass legislation similar to the Berry amendment for PPE,” he said. “Beyond that, it will require a large effort on the part of our industry to sell ‘made in the USA’ to our market. Do you remember ‘Crafted with Pride in the USA’? This was a program back in the ’80s led by a major U.S. textile titan that focused on the benefits and value of textiles made in the USA. The time is ripe for industry leaders to champion a similar program.”
Textile Technology Center
The Textile Technology Center (TTC) at Gaston College, Belmont, N.C., shut down for about three weeks at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, according to Director Sam Buff.
But since reopening, the important industry resource has continued to be available for the industry with its labs and process areas, he added. But onsite classes have all been postponed until further notice, he said.
An essential business, the center did not have to furlough employees, reduce shifts or pause production, and to this day is still operating with a full staff, Buff pointed out.
“We did pivot into a PPE support role,” he said. “We converted some of our ‘pilot lines’ into ‘mini-production’ lines, tested PPE performance and helped with prototyping new PPE products.”
He continued: “We did not have any active PPE production or regular PPE testing pre-pandemic. That is certainly not the case now. We have moved to support PPE testing/production/prototyping in our labs and process areas.”
The TTC is currently running at nearly full capacity but that has not been the case until the last several weeks, Buff noted. The previous six months saw the center operating at an average of around 60 percent capacity, he added.
For employee safety, the TTC operates by the college’s GC Safe Plan, which involves taking daily temperatures, and encouraging handwashing, mask wearing and social distancing. It is currently limiting visitors to the center to only those deemed “essential.”
Buff added that he hopes the end is in sight.
“We have been encouraged by the rise in business we’ve seen over the past several weeks,” he said. ”It appears that some of our manufacturing clients are restarting their facilities and we have continued to get requests for PPE support.”
When the pandemic was spreading and the shortage of PPE was coming to light, Buff said he was “very disappointed” to learn that much of it was produced overseas.
“I heard one estimate of 95 percent,” he said. “I was probably not alone, especially at the beginning of this crisis, in feeling that we had let the American citizen down by outsourcing nearly all of our PPE. I think that’s unacceptable and that we should demand change when it comes to producing PPE in our country. Hopefully, this pandemic will act as a warning for our future production efforts, especially those related to the health and protection of our citizens.”
TREX Machine Group
Knitting machine supplier TREX Machinery Group saw its business come to a standstill as many factories closed or were operating just to manufacturer medical equipment to address the PPE shortage.
“No one was investing in capital equipment, so we had no sales,” said Mary Kate Moody, who founded the company with her brother Mike Moody in late 2018. “Plus, due to COVID, we were no longer able to travel to make our sales calls in the U.S. and other countries such as Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico.”
To address the downturn, the machinery and equipment supplier made quite the dramatic pivot by becoming a PPE manufacturer itself.
TREX began making its branded DINO neck gaiters and face masks – all knitted, cut, finished and printed in North Carolina – and all containing DuPont Silvadur™, an antibacterial agent. The company, based in Monroe, N.C., began to get flooded with calls and requests for these type of face coverings as consumer PPE was quickly running short in supply – even though TREX was not a textile manufacturer.
After about six months, TREX is finally beginning to see machinery sales resume, Mary Kate Moody said.
“We are finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “We have begun to get more machine and parts order in the past 30 days, and many more companies looking for quotes.”
According to an industry supplier who wished to remain anonymous, business came to a virtual halt in April and May although the company was deemed essential. The firm has seen steady growth since June, but operations have yet to return to normal levels.
The company asked for volunteers for furlough, but called everyone back after a couple of months, the source said. Production was monitored for business levels, but the company never had to stop production, he added. It did work with a couple of companies floating new ideas on how to use its product along with their chemistry for PPE, he noted.
“Our business level currently was above 90 percent compared to last year, when comparing month to date,” he said. “This month we are actually over 100 percent of last month to date.”
All sales members are still restricted from traveling unless special permission is given, he added, and now many office personnel are working from home. The company has modified its workstations in production to keep the six-foot barrier between employees. Masks are mandated in common areas, and the company disinfects frequently and limits break areas to one person at a time.
Looking ahead, he said he sees sales returning slowly, but to his company, “getting back to normal” may be slower than other companies, as the health and wellbeing of its employees is of the utmost importance.
He added that the COVID-19 crisis raised red flags to the reliance on critical PPE needs, and that the issue had better get traction in Washington so the country doesn’t find itself in a similar situation in the future.