How COVID-19 has changed American Manufacturing

Companies are continually streamlining. The coronavirus has required some operations to digitize and change quickly. We are now at the cusp of the automated and digitized supply chain, design to shelf.

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Author: Shoshana Burgett, Pink Elephant Productions

If you have read the news lately, the world is in a crisis. Hospitals are packed, and people are dying. Doctors and nurses are giving up their protective face masks to serve patients. If a doctor or nurse dies, it is one less doctor or nurse that can help treat a loved one. Face masks, medical uniforms, and even hand-sanitizer all fall under the category of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and there is not enough in the world to support the current demand. It’s easy to say we need to make more of it, but it is not so easy to execute. Manufacturers around the country are shifting their production lines and retraining employees to make all sorts of PPE. But it takes time to do this while also ensuring the safety of workers. One thing is clear; this disease will dramatically change manufacturing. And it could be the catalyst the some of these industries need to embrace digitization completely.

Woman wearing face mask protect filter against air pollution (PM2.5) from Zasabe - Freepik.com

Other shifts happened in textiles at this same time. To keep costs low, brands moved to lower-quality materials. The rise of fast fashion drove the need for quick turnaround, at economical prices (and lower quality). It has worked successfully for almost a decade. Shorter productions, cheaper material and labour, provided a faster turn to place products on the shelf. The whole supply chain was working on a thin set of margins and small inventories to manage costs.

That all changed on 31 December 2019 when we first heard of COVID-19. For example, China is the world’s largest producer of medical masks, with a reported daily capacity of 20 million pieces. During the outbreak, domestic demand rose to 50 to 60 million per day. All at once, the world is in high demand for medical protective gear to help both doctors and nurses but also protect its civilians. With 8 billion people on the planet, that is a lot of masks!

Samples of masks and other Personal Protective Equipment being produced at bluemedia in Arizona
Look back at the last 30 years

We’ve all read about the industrial revolution. At a simple level, it was the shift from small shop manufacturing to large, mass-produced manufacturing in cities. This transformed production and manufacturing.

As costs come down and volume went up, this drove companies to look at new ways to reduce waste and keep their margins. In the 1980’s companies turned to lean manufacturing. Lean, at its core, is relentlessly looking for areas to eliminate waste from the manufacturing process. It also defines standard processes and procedures for people to follow. As costs get further squeezed, companies began evaluating the human cost. This was when certain areas of manufacturing slowed down and companies started to import more goods or materials. Some imported smaller lower-cost parts, while others moved all their production overseas.

As lean manufacturing took hold in the United States, companies began to shift their imports to the lowest-cost countries. Let’s look at textiles as an example:

  • In 1991, China, Hong Kong, China, Korea, Rep. and Italy were the most significant textile imports to the United States.
  • By 1998, Mexico, China, Hong Kong, Canada and Korea were the largest textile imports to the United States.
  • In 2018, China, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh and Mexico were the largest textile imports to the United States
New Balance is one of many companies shifting to making masks and other Personal Protective Equipment

Manufacturers Use Technology to Meet Demand

With more demand for PPE than is available on the market by traditional manufacturers, a host of companies are stepping up to help out. In many cases, they have transferable skills or technology that can quickly be leveraged to fill the gap.

Inkjet Printing on demand along with in-line stitching, cutting and sewing is a set of technologies that can help. Print on demand is the act of producing only the number needed and has been around for decades. In many cases this production inkjet technology can quickly switch from printing on vinyl to textiles. Companies that traditionally print signage are converting operations to PPE. With 130,000 square feet, bluemedia is the largest event and branding experience producers in the United States. They are now shifting their inkjet printers and Zund cutters to start producing 2,000 masks a day.

Gerber Technology quickly set up a PPE task force to help manufacturers switch to the production of masks, labels & other personal protective equipment. Gerber is working with suppliers, pattern makers,  and providing training, software and equipment.

I recently saw Gerber Technologiesmicro-factory in New York City and their innovative technology platform embraces digital workflows. This makes it not only efficient but also very adaptive to changing trends or market demands.  At the micro factory, in a space the size of a studio apartment, clothing can be printed, cut and sewn in an automated process. It’s an incredible feat, yet making such a dramatic change takes a massive shift and investment in technology and employee education.

In apparel, many designers still rely on pencil sketches, and material is tactile, so swatches are typically dyed and shipped back and forth between the supplying company. New tools, like Swatchbook, and material warehouse, allow designers to design digitally, with digitized fabrics to demonstrate how the textile will look. As long as a designer could ‘feel’ a sample, color and fit can be created digitally.

Many apparel and textile companies have heard the call and are helping out.  This includes On Point Manufacturing, the Gap, Canada Goose, and New Balance, etc. These companies are leveraging technology, highly skilled workforce and adjusting manufacturing lines to make PPE. These companies can produce PPE and get it into the market quickly without waiting for oversea manufacturers.

Embracing Digital Workflows

Production of masks, gowns, or other items like respirators or hand sanitizer can be done digitally in micro-factories. Pattern makers can digitally design, and software within the process will calculate how to maximize the material. Instead of using dyed material, inkjet printers print design patterns directly onto the material. The material is automatically fed into a drying unit and then moved in-line to a cutter, which uses QR codes to recognize the pattern to cut. Sewing machines can be semi-automated and programmed to stitch or embroider materials. They can be done, on-demand, where the demand is highest. An apparel workflow that leverages digitized material and is digitally managed has been slowly gaining traction. Change is never easy, and it takes either time or a catalyst for the industry to embrace it. COVID-19 is the catalyst for the apparel industry.

Many printing facilities have some amount of digitization and automation in their workflow, but they can go farther. Quality tools can measure and report back using cloud systems. Brands and operators can see production bottlenecks and quality issues in real-time and make adjustments. More importantly, the process allows for remote work. All the data can flow into a single dashboard with data analytics to monitor and connect each of them.

We are better together

These suppliers are taking a ‘produce on-demand business model, and scaling to support the broader community. One site may produce 2-3 thousand masks or medical uniforms. With thousands of digital textile manufacturers, and grand format print producers, each shifting production to help, the United States would be able to produce 6-Million pieces a day. That means it would take 60 days to produce masks for each resident. Add in other industries that could help such as dye houses and designers, and we would have a country of micro-factories, each bringing support and resources to their areas.

Resources:

What can you do?

If you are a textile supplier or thread supplier reach out Gerber here.

If you produce grand format signage and print on textiles reach out to your manufactures to see how you can shift production.

If you are a designer, look at Swatchbook, PointCarre, or Gerber, and begin tinkering with the software. You are home and sequestered, now is a great time to start downloading demo software or signing up for one of the many on-line courses some of these companies offer.

We live in an ever-connected world. If you are a designer or a manufacturer, now is the time to evaluate the reasons not to digitize. What would it take to do? If your business is not digitized from design to manufacturing, you are home waiting. Design to production approaches are shining during this historic moment.

List of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE)
  • Blood pressure cuffs
  • Body bags/ transport bags (ill or deceased)
  • Cots
  • Disposable Personal Protective Apparel
  • Face Shields – Plastic / Transparent
  • Hazmat suits/ durable protective apparel
  • Head covers
  • Hospital bed sheets/ pillowcases
  • Hospital privacy curtains
  • Lab coats
  • Medical beds
  • Medical equipment bags
  • Medical/ surgical face masks
  • Patient lifting systems (slings)
  • Patient restraint/ safety straps
  • Scrub suits
  • Shoe covers
  • Surgical drapes
  • Surgical Gowns
  • Textile components of heart monitoring devices
  • Towels
  • Triage/ medical tents and other temporary shelter

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