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Deep Dive: How Manufacturers Are Transitioning To Counter PPE Shortages

Fighting a pandemic takes clear communication, strategic organization and responsive action. It also requires supplies, which has been a major worldwide stumbling block.

The U.S. has been scrambling to secure enough face masks, goggles, plastic gowns and other personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep frontline workers safe. This gear creates reliable barriers between individuals and prevents exposure to exhalation droplets that could carry the virus, making it essential for healthcare professionals who come in close contact with patients.

Everyone from surgeons and nurses to EMTs and home health aides as well as those who do not work directly with patients but could be exposed when sanitizing hospital spaces, speaking with patients’ family members and performing other critical tasks need to keep themselves healthy and ensure they do not unwittingly catch and spread the virus.

PPE shortages have been severe, with governments vying for items their healthcare workers need amid disrupted manufacturing and supply chains. China typically produces more than half the world’s face mask supply, but the country largely ceased exporting these items when the pandemic hit. PPE inventory strains have also resulted in the U.S. government pitting individual states into bidding wars against it and each other to obtain these critical items, with some physicians reporting that the federal government even seized some hospitals’ PPE deliveries.

High need combined with global shortages have caused prices to spike, leading the World Health Organization (WHO) to report that prices of N95 respirators rose three-fold and surgical masks rose six-fold as of early March. Demand remains strong months later as well, with global PPE spending expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.5 percent between 2020 and 2027, reaching $98.3 billion.

The best way to reduce such hikes and sate demand may be to create more products, with WHO predicting in March that PPE manufacturing would need to ramp up by 40 percent to meet the world’s needs.

Countries worldwide are struggling to obtain enough protective gear, even in June, as one recent survey projects that Canada is not on track to obtain the 3.3 billion disposable face masks it is expected to need over the next 12 months, for example — or the 750 million it would require for just the next four.

This month’s Deep Dive examines how U.S. companies are hearing this call and revising their manufacturing approaches to bolster supplies of these essential items.

Manufacturers Pivot Into PPE

Getting protective supplies to those who need them and ensuring PPE inventory quantities are sufficient to curb the virus’s spread are each critical to public health. This will also require significant effort, with WHO projecting in March that it would take 89 million medical masks per month to assist pandemic response efforts around the globe.

The U.S. has traditionally sourced its PPE from abroad, but export limitations in supplier countries have impeded this process. Domestic healthcare facilities are strongly feeling the resultant shortages, with one survey of staff at 978 healthcare facilities across the country finding 36 percent had run out of face shields by April 8. It noted stark results between states, too, with 51 percent of Massachusetts facilities reporting they had, at most, one week’s worth of N95 masks, 58 percent of Floridian respondents saying they had entirely run out of booties and 57 percent of Texan facilities having no more than seven days’ worth of gloves.

Some U.S. companies have sought to plug domestic shortages by expanding into PPE manufacturing. These companies had to first identify which items were most aligned with their existing production capabilities, then reconfigure their production processes to match these products. Manufacturers that already relied on U.S. sources for raw materials have been especially well-positioned to make such transitions because they can avoid major international supply chain and logistics disruptions and thus quickly shift their operations to create PPE.

Maine-based manufacturer Flowfold, which creates sailcloth backpacks and similar products with items from domestic suppliers, is one small company that has converted its operations to create face shields for healthcare providers. It was able to use the same machinery it normally leverages for cutting heavy-duty sailcloth to instead cut plastic for face shields, but doing so required several major changes, like reconfiguring its factory with appropriately spaced and disinfected workstations as well as giving staff equipment to protect them from contracting or spreading the virus. Flowfold also had to get a new type of insurance to protect itself from liabilities associated with making PPE, according to Chief Operating Officer James Morin, and consulted healthcare workers to learn what went into creating face shields that fit well.

Individual consumers with 3D printers have also sought to pitch in and create equipment, using their home devices to print various items, including nasal swabs for testing kits and protective hard plastic masks. Some have been creating ventilator splitters, which enable a single ventilator to serve more patients, thus easing demand on highly sought-after machines.

Achieving sufficient PPE and medical device supply will be critical to containing the pandemic and enabling the world’s safe return to more normal economic activities. Companies’ efforts to pivot their operations and create additional products are vital to public health and reliable restoration of commercial activities. Consumers are unlikely to make many unnecessary visits to businesses that are reopening until they believe it is safe to be in public spaces, after all. Creating PPE will thus go a long way toward saving lives and reducing the timeline for economic recovery. It is not too late for more companies to join this effort, and the experiences of those that have already pivoted into PPE production can help guide their transitions.

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