Face Masks Industry Responds to Crisis

Amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, makers of masks, meltblown and machinery focus on increasing supply to save lives


The recent Coronavirus pandemic, along with other global concerns, have boosted demand for face masks significantly during the first three months of 2020. According to a study conducted by Future Market Insights, consumers are increasingly purchasing these materials to prevent against viruses and other diseases, which has led companies to significantly focus on increasing production capacity and expanding their product availability to minimize the risk of infection.

While many experts say there is no reason for healthy citizens to wear protective masks, many are. Healthcare professionals should be using a tightly-sealed respirator, like the N95 mask, with each patient. These masks are thicker than standard surgical masks and are designed to fit more tightly around the mouth and nose to block out much smaller particles. The Food and Drug Administration warns that neither surgical masks nor N95s should be shared or be reused.

To address supply shortages, many companies are increasing mask production or converting existing assets to make them. In March, medical supply leader 3M announced it had ramped up to maximum production levels of the N95 respirators and doubled its global output to a rate of more than 1.1 billion per year, or nearly 100 million per month. According to chairman of the board Mike Roman, in the U.S. the company is producing 35 million respirators per month; of these, more than 90% are now designated for healthcare workers with the remaining deployed to other industries also critical in this pandemic, including energy, food and pharmaceutical companies. As a global company, 3M also manufactures respirators in Europe, Asia and Latin America, and its products are being similarly deployed to support the COVID-19 response in those respective regions.

“Like everyone, I see the pleas from our heroic doctors, nurses and first responders for the respirators and other equipment they desperately need. I want people to know we are doing all we can to meet the demands of this extraordinary time and get supplies from our plants to where they’re most needed as quickly as possible,” he says. “As I write this, more than 500,000 respirators are on the way from our South Dakota plant to two of the more critically impacted areas, New York and Seattle, with arrivals expected starting tomorrow. We are also ready to expedite additional shipments across the country.”

While 3M is currently operating at maximum production, it has accelerated investments to expand the global capacity even more.

The company anticipates being able to nearly double its capacity again, to almost two billion respirators globally, within the next 12 months and is working with the U.S. and other governments, investigating alternate manufacturing scenarios and exploring coalitions with other companies to increase capacity further. “We’ve also maximized production of a wide range of other solutions being used in the response, including hand sanitizers and disinfectants,” he adds.

Meanwhile, in China, integrated health and nutritional products business Eagle Health has announced expanded production of disposable medical masks at its pharmaceutical facility in Xiamen. The first two of six production lines are under trial production at the Xiamen facility.

When all six lines reach full capacity, Eagle Health expects to produce 300 million units annually.

In terms of mask specifications, Eagle Health intends to use two source materials to manufacture masks with a minimum bacterial filtration efficiency of more than 95%. The company’s medical masks are being manufactured in accordance with standards set forth by Chinese regulators and will comply with guidelines provided by the State Food and Drug Administration, the overarching gatekeeper for new medical products coming into China.

On the nonwovens supply side, manufacturers are stepping up to make sure that meltblown nonwovens, a key component in facial masks, are in supply. Machinery and equipment manufacturer Reifenhäuser Reicofil has temporarily converted two of its test plants to production lines to make materials designed to fight the Coronavirus pandemic. The lines have been making meltblown materials for the production of face masks for that past week.

Dr. Bernd Kunze, CEO, says, “We have considered what contribution, we can make in this crisis. This is of course mainly the fast delivery of meltblown lines to build up additional capacities. We have drastically reduced our delivery times here. But we also wanted to provide support at shorter notice. Until the currently lacking capacities are built up, we are therefore stepping in with the test plants in our pilot plant station. Not using this capacity now would be irresponsible in our view.”

Until further notice, the meltblown lines will be operated in four-shift operations running 24 hours per day. The daily output is sufficient for up to one million face masks. Trial operations will be almost completely suspended during this period.

The meltblown material from the nonwoven technology center is already sold out for the next five weeks. As no German or European producer for further processing could be found so far, the nonwoven fabric is going to a Vietnamese manufacturer of face masks. However, Reifenhäuser continues to look for opportunities to strengthen the local supply during this crisis. The company is in close contact with associations, authorities and other companies.

Kunze explains that material for other medical protective clothing could also be produced at short notice: “We assume that protective suits, hoods, etc. will also become scarce. We are happy to offer our help here as well,” he says. “One of our pilot lines can produce the corresponding material, an SMS nonwoven, in the highest quality at short notice. In the medium term, however, we should also expand the real production capacities in Germany or Europe with new plants here as well.”

Reifenhäuser has also shortened the supply window of its meltblown lines to three-and-a-half months so that companies and governments can have increased access to the materials.

Kunze says that quick and reliable solutions like this are needed in the Corona crisis: “In situations like the current one, we gladly depart from customary procedures. Sticking to standards in a non-standard situation is out of place,” he says. “It goes without saying that we will do everything in our power to serve the needs quickly and in the accustomed high quality.”

The first contract with the new delivery time has already been concluded. A 1.6 meter wide Reicofil meltblown line is scheduled to start operation in August 2020. With an annual output of 550 metric tons, the plant will produce H99 filter material for up to 1.8 million face masks a day.

Reifenhäuser Reicofil also supplies technology for the production of other medical protection clothing, such as surgical gowns. These products are made of a SMS nonwoven structure – a combination of spunbond and meltblown material. These composite lines can be delivered within 10 to 11 months.

Meanwhile, G&G Medical makes nonwoven inserts that go within the face mask and is currently trying to accommodate additional demand for protection, according to CEO Farouk Gafoor. The company has the ability to make three million of these inserts a day. While G&G has not ramped up production at this time, the company is always open to the possibility of partnerships.

“We are in no position to claim that this product is effective against the virus, the filtration system we have created can prevent 99% of bacteria and provide extra protection,” he says.

Viroblock is Tested Effective Against Coronavirus
HeiQ, winner of the Swiss Technology Award and Swiss Environmental Award, has launched HeiQ Viroblock NPJ03, an antiviral and antimicrobial textile treatment that was tested effective against coronavirus.

Since its inception 15 years ago, HeiQ has forged a solid innovation track record helping brands improve textile products. Catalyzed to action by the global fight against Coronavirus, HeiQ launched HeiQ Viroblock NPJ03, an antiviral and antimicrobial textile treatment which is proven effective against human coronavirus (229E) in face mask testing, significantly enhancing the antiviral log reduction from 2.90 of untreated face masks to 4.48, over 99.99% reduction of virus infectivity. A log reduction of two is equivalent to 100 times the effectiveness.

“Virologist Dr. Thierry Pelet of HeiQ’s Scientific Advisory Board brought us a profound depth of knowledge and accelerated our efforts to address the urgent problem of a global pandemic,” says Carlo Centonze, HeiQ Group CEO. “Our goal is to prevent textiles from becoming a host surface for propagating harmful viruses and bacteria and contribute to reduce the risk and speed of contamination and transmission.”

According to the World Health Organization, the incubation period for COVID-19 ranges from one to 14 days. Social distancing and wearing a mask are common measures that people in many region are taking to avoid spreading the virus. Chinese protective masks producer Suzhou Bolisi is the lead adopter of HeiQ Viroblock NPJ03. Treated masks will be available on the market as early as this month. American legwear manufacturer Kayser-Roth is planning to add the technology to their new product, Ghluv hands protector, while Lufeng from China is evaluating the technology on other types of fabric used for garments.

“I’m impressed by HeiQ’s ability to fast track such a complex innovation and bring this breakthrough to globally critical products in short time,” says Dr. Pelet of HeiQ’s Scientific Advisory Board.

“HeiQ strives to help improve the lives of people through bringing breakthrough innovations to textiles. We have pushed hard to bring the HeiQ Viroblock technology to reality to assist at this time of urgent need for society around the world,” adds Centonze.

HeiQ Viroblock NPJ03 is a unique combination of vesicle and silver technologies designed to inhibit the growth and persistence of bacteria and viruses. The HeiQ vesicle technology targets lipid-enveloped viruses, such as coronavirus, providing rapid virus deactivation, while the HeiQ silver technology inhibits the replication of both bacteria and viruses. HeiQ Viroblock NPJ03 can be applied to a wide spectrum of textile surfaces including face masks, air filters, medical gowns, curtains, drapes and more. HeiQ also has a range of highly wash-durable antimicrobial and odor control textile technologies, called HeiQ Pure, combining silver-based and bio-based materials for all fabric types.

Both 229E and Covid-19 are two of seven types of human coronaviruses. Besides testing on human coronavirus (229E), HeiQ Viroblock NPJ03 also demonstrates dramatically improved reduction of virus infectivity against Influenza types H1N1, H5N1, H7N9, and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV).

South Korea University Develops Recyclable Facial Masks
A research team at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology has they have developed a nano-filter that maintains excellent filtering efficiency even after hand washing through the development of proprietary technology that aligns nanofibers with a diameter of 100~500 nm in orthogonal or unidirectional directions. This reusable nano-filtered face mask could help to relieve the challenges arising from the supply shortage of face masks.

Professor Il-Doo Kim’s nano-fiber filtered mask will maintain its sturdy frame and filtering function even after being washed more than 20 times. Professor Kim, who has continued to study the filtering of fine dust using nano-filters, is now awaiting final approval from the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety to bring his product into the market.

Professor Kim used an insulation block electrospinning process to manufacture orthogonal nanofibers by controlling the alignment of nanofibers. This structure can minimize delivering of the pressure toward the air filter and maximize the filtration efficiency, which is different from existing disposable masks without nano-fibers.

Existing masks also fail to maintain their air filtering function because their electrostatic function disappears when exposed to water. Thus, their filtering efficiency is reduced significantly, making it almost impossible to reuse them. However, this nano-fiber design was proven to be water resistant with more than 94% filtering efficiency in 20 repeated bactericidal tests with ethanol. The nano-fiber mask also showed no deformation in its nano-membrane structure despite the 20 hand washes. In particular, it was confirmed that there were no deformations in the membrane, even after soaking in ethanol more than three hours.

Professor Kim says, “We believe that this mask can be reusable for about a month even after washing in ethanol. The inner filter can also be replaced.” He adds, “We found that the mask filters out up to 80% of 600-nanometer particles even after undergoing a bending test more than 4,000 times.”

Professor Kim established his startup company, the “Kim Il-Doo Research Institute,” last February. It can currently produce 1,500 nano-fiber filters per day.
Web Industries Allocates Medical Nonwovens Converting in Response to COVID-19

Web Industries, Inc., a precision converter and contract manufacturing organization (CMO), is prepared to develop nonwoven and material converting solutions and is offering production capacity to support the manufacture of disposable medical products for the COVID-19 crisis. Converting is an important step in the supply chain in which materials are formatted so that they can be run more efficiently on automated manufacturing lines.

Certified under ISO 14001 and ISO 9001, Web has multi-color, high-speed printing, slitting and traverse winding, or spooling, lines at its factory in Fort Wayne, IN, the company’s Center of Excellence for converting personal and home care products. The recently expanded facility has state-of-the-art equipment for converting nonwoven materials. Web’s team is available to discuss how it can support manufacturers of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical consumables. Most disposable PPE products, such as surgical masks and protective gowns, are made of nonwoven materials.

Currently, Web converts ties and bindings for surgical masks at the Fort Wayne facility, which predominantly processes nonwoven materials for diapers and other personal and home care products.

“We are available to discuss how we can use our converting lines and expertise to help manufacturers meet demand for disposable medical products needed for the COVID-19 response,” says Adrienne Green, director of sales, personal and home care. “Our engineers are skilled at devising solutions for working with a wide variety of materials and converting them into formats that can be efficiently and seamlessly integrated into the end-product manufacturer’s operations.”

BYD Shifts Production to Face Masks and Hand Sanitizer
Chinese electric vehicle (EV) maker BYD has announced it is operating the ‘world’s largest face mask plant,’ less than a month after starting production in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The company, which is partially owned by Warren Buffett, said its factory can produce 300,000 bottles of hand sanitizer gels and five million face masks per day, equivalent to a quarter of China’s entire production capacity and claims it was able to begin mask production within seven days of deciding to launch production. It suggests the market would normally take 15 to 30 days to manufacture a mask-producing machine and start output.

BYD is shipping its medical-grade hand sanitizers to medical staff in hospitals and agencies across China.

Sherry Li, director general of BYD’s President Office, says, “A production line for high-quality face masks requires about 1300 parts for various gears, chains, and rollers, 90% of which are BYD’s self-made parts.”

Zhao Jianping, general manager of BYD’s Quality Division, says: “The equipment that we already have offers precision and quality that is much higher than what is commonly required to produce masks.”

Last year BYD sold more than 113,000 plug-in EVs worldwide and currently has nearly 40,000 electric buses in service around the world.