Webinars successfully unmasking PPE issue

Posted May 21, 2020


Three months again, how many of us in the textile and apparel sector would’ve dreamed one of our main topics of conversation these days would be around Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)?


Very few, probably.


But here we are, either sheltering in place while working with today’s virtual tools or getting up and going to work at “Essential Businesses.” Or, if you can’t work remotely, waiting for your place of business to reopen.

All the while thinking of or working with PPE every day.


Despite the distress the COVID-19 crisis has caused nationally and globally, a number of silver linings are slivering and slinking around those black clouds. The promise of shortened supply chains and made-where-you-are mandates looms large and bodes well for our industry, whether you’re in the U.S. or Europe or somewhere else and have depended on the Asian model for two-plus decades.


The need for PPE – and the need for it NOW – is driving this hope for a more prosperous, more sustainable, more collaborative, more EVERYTHING textile and apparel manufacturing sector. Over the last few weeks, our industry – as well as many outside of it who may own a sewing machine – has stepped up BIG TIME to make these much-needed products for frontline healthcare heroes, working employees or the general public.


I’m been privileged to document many of these amazing stories since March. And along the way, I’ve done my best to educate myself on this issue since we’re in this “wild, wild west” of PPE, an analogy I coined and penned here about two months ago.


As we wade through these uncharted waters, one of the best learning opportunities for me has been to attend a number of webinars around the topic, including a series hosted by N.C. State University’s Wilson College of Textiles, in partnership with IFAI, SEAMS, SPESA and IPC.


Two of the eight weekly webinars have taken place the previous two Tuesdays. They’ve been excellent and educational, even for those of us who aren’t involved in the day-to-day manufacture or distribution of such items. Did you know, for instance, that all N95-certified masks contain nonwoven fabric? As a non-technical person, I didn’t.


But Emiel DenHartog, director of Graduate Programs and associate professor at N.C. State Wilson’s Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science (TECS) Department and associate director at its Textile Protection and Comfort Center (TPACC), advised viewers as much during the first webinar. That was among a number of takeaways from those virtual events.


He also explained the term “N95,” noting that it means that 95 percent of particles – mostly small particles (.3 micrometer) – are filtered out during filtration tests.


“The interesting thing about the whole discussion of masks is that N95 is not certified by the FDA, but by the NIOSH NPTTL in Pittsburgh,” said DenHartog, referring to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). “They do these tests according to federal guidelines.”


And the Q&A section of the first webinar included some smart questions that generated some insightful answers. One viewer asked if hemp would be a “good fit” for PPE as a “new material.”


To which Dr. Andre West, director of the Wilson College of Textiles’ Zeis Textile Extension answered: “No, not for the COVID-19 virus. Hemp has some antibacterial qualities but I think this is a very aggressive virus, so I wouldn’t recommend any natural products. You have to work with the nonwoven materials, whether that is part of the product or inside the product to be safe from the COVID-19. You can’t get that fine filtration with a hemp product, as I understand. It might be good for other sources, maybe a common cold, but if you're looking for COVID-19 protection, no. Some say that something is better than nothing, but you have to be careful when it comes to protection.”


Beyond the technical aspects of certain PPE, market and production data also was enlightening. Marc Mathews, research association at N.C. State’s TPACC, reported that compound annual growth rate of global PPE is projected to grow by 6.3 percent to reach USD $11.9 billion by 2024 from $8.8 billion last year. Drivers include an increased focus on worker safety and an influx of demand, he said, adding that North America is the largest market for PPE.


“I can already tell you that from the areas I work in, there is a specific need to move from disposable items into reusable items,” he explained. “I'm sure everyone is familiar with the shortages in a lot of the different PPE. Typically, the shortages of those are due to the disposable items. So they typically can't be decontaminates. They are single use. Now people are trying to figure out, can we decontaminate them and reuse them? So you may start to see some of the market moving toward reusable systems in lieu of having disposable items.”


He added: “And also, now that PPE is much more common in the general public, it will introduce some interesting requirements into the development process, which typically may not have been there.”


That led to an interested discussion about the whys and hows of the PPE shortages, and what’s next.


Stephen Sharp, director of Engineering and Operations at Sanctuary Systems who previously spent years at N.C. State’s Nonwovens Institute (NWI), said the scarcity resulted from the fact that a lot of protective materials are made overseas.


“I know 3M was making a lot here with the N95-type materials and, of course, our general medical suppliers were making them as well,” said Sharp, who has spent more than 27 years developing manmade fibers for nonwovens and other applications. “But when you build equipment to make these type of things, you build equipment only to meet current market demand. Of course you don't spend millions of dollars on equipment if you don't need it.


“So when the demand spiked rapidly,” he continued, “people reacting by buying equipment that can take six months to 18 months to install. A lot of folks ran out and purchased the mask machines, and the only people that made the machines that produce masks are in China, for the most part. So they bought a lot of these machines, but then they also realized that the feedstocks were also severely stressed. And the main feedstock is meltblown (nonwoven material), which creates the .3 micron, 95 percent filtration level, which was already in short supply.”


Later, a participant posed an interesting question: “I’m convinced that the U.S. textile industry is able to provide more PPE product than is needed in the U.S., but the buyers are not prepared to pay U.S. price points. How do you see this problem getting resolved?”


DenHartog responded first, with the caveat that he is not an economist: “Hospitals have been buying at low cost, trying to minimize their stockpiles. So I fully agree with the notion that the U.S. should have sufficient production capacity to address all PPE needs, but it is very much low-cost consumables that people are looking for. I really hope and I’m moderately optimistic that this will open up people’s eyes to see that we have things that are sustainable, durable and reusable. But in the end it comes down to who will be the buyers when this pandemic ends. I don’t think anyone has addressed that fundamental issue of this supply chain problem on PPE yet.”


SEAMS Executive Director Will Duncan, whose association is all about building bridges in the domestic supply chain and the made-in-America movement, chimed in with a number of points that are on many people’s minds these days.


“Once things start settling down, if the buyers – not the users – are allowed to go back to just chasing the cheapest source from the cheapest place they can get it, we’re going to be right back where we were,” he said. “I think it's incumbent on the entire U.S. population, in particular the ultimate users of this, to not allow that to happen. They should have a voice and make sure that something is put in place to ensure the U.S. does retain these capabilities, whether it’s a controlled amount necessary for a pandemic or not. It certainly needs to have some capabilities. We all know that. None of us want to go through this again.


Duncan, who counts at least two dozen members who have shifted into PPE production during this crisis, said he has seen firsthand what can result when an industry steps up and works together.


“From my perspective with SEAMs, we’ve watched an entire industry – textile and cut and sew – come together and be the primary producers of PPE during this time of need,” he said. “Granted, the demand is much higher than capacity. But our industry is the one that has been doing this. And most of these companies have shown the ability to pivot their production in a matter of days or short weeks, both from a cut-and-sew standpoint as well as on the textile side. Many of our members have been able to transition their existing equipment over into producing appropriate materials to support the PPE.”


He concluded: “So the industry can handle this and is handling this, and I think we can bring our prices down. A lot of the folks who were not using certain technologies in their processes will probably have a difficult time competing. But because we have some who are embracing automation, I think we can bring our costs down to where we can satisfy those needs. We’re certainly not going to be at cheap Asia labor rates. But I think we can produce something that the ultimate consumers would be willing to pay for.”


(N.C. State has several PPE webinars remaining. If you would like to participate, please click here.)

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