In fact, in mid-April, EDANA, the Brussels, Belgium-based trade association, along with 10 other European-based trade associations, issued a plea to the European Union and its member states to continue to partner with the industry and intensify their cooperation to increase capacity, ease trade restrictions and restrict stockpiling.
“It is in all countries’ interest to cooperate on keeping trade in medical products broadly open. No country is self-sufficient, no matter how powerful or advanced it may be. Trade allows for the efficient production and supply of medical supplies and equipment as the disease progresses along different timelines in different countries. [...] The ongoing blow to public finances and household budgets will be bad enough without making necessary supplies scarcer and more expensive.”
The importance of nonwoven-based materials in the fight against Coronavirus was on fully display in late March when French president Emmanuel Macron toured the face-mask manufacturing plant Kolmi-Hopen, in Saint-Barthelemy-d’Anjou near Angers, to help reassure French citizens that the government is investing and working to increase output, add capacity and provide critical care professionals with the masks they need.
Kolmi-Hopen, a subsidiary of Medicom, headquartered in Montreal, Canada, is one of four major manufacturers of N95 efficiency level face masks in France, and will deliver up to 200 million masks in the coming months. In a statement, Macron said the government plans to increase its national output of masks from 3.3 million to 10 million weekly.
Assisting in this effort is nonwovens producer Ahlstrom-Munksjö, whose products Reliance SMS 200, Reliance SMS 300, Reliance Dextex 200 and Reliance Dextex 300 have been declared compatible with the French requirements for face masks used by civil servants in contact with the public. The material is typically used for the manufacturing of sterilization wraps for surgical instruments. Reliance SMS 200 and Reliance SMS 300 have also been tested compatible with the European standard EN 14683, meeting the performance criteria of surgical masks.
During May the company will produce material equivalent to 100 million face masks for civil servants in contact with the public such as police officers, prison administrators and social workers as well as companies active in essential sectors such as food, energy, water and waste.
“The attainment of this long-term work for the selection of our products represents a moment of collective pride at Ahlstrom-Munksjö. Our medical business serves the medical device market worldwide all year round, and our agility and ability to innovate makes us an ideal partner in critical situations,” says Lionel Bonte, vice president of medical business.
In France, Ahlstrom-Munksjö has some 1600 employees, eight production sites, two global R&D centers and a sales office. Measured by the amount of employees, France is the second largest country of operations representing 20% of group.
Within the nonwovens industry, companies throughout the supply chain are reporting supply shortages. Reicofil, a manufacturers of machinery for meltblown nonwovens, a critical component in N95 facial masks, announced in late March it had shortened the timeframe for the supply of a meltblown line to under four months to help meet demand for the material globally and had also begun supplying the material from its pilot lines in Troisdorf, Germany.
However, the availability of large-scale converters of face masks was found to be in short supply. To solve this problem, CEO Bernd Reifenhäuser called for state-owned industrial production sites with closed supply chains to supply Europe with protective materials independently and competitively.
“We need a strategic production reserve for medical protective clothing in Europe,” he says. “We have to quickly build up the machine capacity for the industrial production of masks in high volumes but at the same time, the corresponding capacities for the production of the necessary high quality nonwovens in Europe must be created. Otherwise, our dependence will remain at a crucial point in the supply chain.”
To keep their raw material supply chain flowing, SIBUR, Russia’s largest integrated petrochemicals company, and Netkanika, a major manufacturer nonwovens, announced plans to expand their cooperation to provide the healthcare industry with high quality single-use personal protective equipment. Under the agreement, SIBUR provides polypropylene for Netkanika’s nonwovens output serving the medical and hygiene industries. While Netkanika has not announced any line investments amidst increased demand for medical and protective materials, it has focused on some de-bottlenecking and other maintenance tasks to be better prepared for demand growth.
Meanwhile, SIBUR and Netkanika are considering the ways to expand Netkanika’s production capacities to meet current and future demand in the healthcare industry. As part of this initiative, the partners are negotiating a long-term cooperation program providing for SIBUR’s supply of feedstock to Netkanika on favorable terms in order to speed up the potential return on investment.
“Today, we are entirely focused on providing a steady supply of nonwoven materials to our clients that manufacture disposable personal protective equipment, including medical masks and wear, baby and adult hygiene products,” says Rifkat Galimzyanov, general manager of Netkanika. “Due to a demand spike there is a shortage of such materials in the market, which we are prepared to mitigate by engaging additional production capacities.”
In light of government and private efforts to increase the supply of facial masks, German nonwovens manufacturer Sandler has announced it will add a line capable of making face mask material in Schwarzenbach, Saale. In April, the company said the new line was scheduled to start up in the middle of the third quarter when it will allow it to produce nonwovens to supply up to 800 million masks.
“The demand for our nonwovens for respirator masks is unbroken – and has been for weeks. Despite around-the-clock production, seven days a week, we cannot accept new orders from manufacturers of respirator masks until June,” says Dr. Christian Heinrich Sandler, president and CEO. “On the other hand, we are also aware of the still challenging situation in the health sector and therefore we decided last week to invest in a further production line for nonwovens for respirator masks at the Schwarzenbach site in Upper Franconia.“
Sandler plans to leverage its experience as a manufacturer of nonwoven media for air filtration, a market it has been involved in for more than 20 years.
“Until now, the product category ‘nonwovens for respirator masks’ did not receive much public attention, as previous epidemics fortunately affected the country less,” Sandler says.
Due to the unfortunate development of the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand from Germany and all over Europe has now increased significantly and is likely to remain high in the long term. “We therefore greatly welcome the establishment of complete value chains in Germany,” he adds.
Berry Global, the world’s largest manufacturer of nonwovens has a multi-continent approach to expanding its face mask material production. The company already has a new meltblown asset, purchased prior to the Coronavirus outbreak, in Asia and has committed to adding another one in France. Additionally, Berry has converted a pilot line in Waynesboro, VA, into a commercial operation making its proprietary Meltex meltblown material for both surgical masks and N95 and N99 respirators. This added capacity will allow the company to make materials for 200 million masks annually and sources close to the company says further investment is planned for the near term.
Meltblown is an optimum material for face masks because of its filtration efficiency and low pressure drop combined with a low basis weight. “It’s easy to wear and to use,” Cedric Ballay, EVP & GM for Europe in Health, Hygiene, and Specialties. “It is a great technology to protect people in a comfortable way.”
Currently, Berry’s five existing meltblown lines globally have shifted production to make materials for facial masks, and the company has also removed spunbond capabilities from its new Reicofil 5 line in China to make straight meltblown for face masks.
“Across the company we have tried to do all we can to try and create short term the capacity… help in the fight …we are doing the same with other technologies,” Bailey says.
These efforts have led to an extension of Berry’s Synergex range of products, Synergex ONE, a new media for face mask applications. Developed to initially meet the new face mask categories for general population, the aim is to quickly bring the media up to EN 14683:2019 standards for surgical masks. The newly introduced Synergex ONE provides a multilayer nonwoven composite product in a single sheet, as an alternative to traditional face mask layer structures. This new material will be manufactured in Europe and serve the European market and is available immediately.
Elsewhere in Europe, in April, the board of directors at PFNonwovens announced it would add a new meltblown line, the company’s first, in Znojmo, Czech Republic. The line will make face mask materials for the Czech government and private customers in Europe.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., where face mask material production has waned in recent years, Johns Manville has announced plans to begin making the material in Richland, MS, following a reconfiguration of an existing asset for filtration media.
“Johns Manville is in a unique position to serve a market that is fulfilling a great need across the world,” says Mary Rhinehart, president and CEO of Johns Manville. “We are proud of our teams in Richland and throughout JM for finding new ways to support the communities and people who are on the front lines of this global crisis.”
JM media meets or exceeds Level 1 BFE 95% (Bacterial Filtration Efficiency) and VFE (Viral Filtration Efficiency) requirements. These results were verified by an FDA-registered national laboratory.
“Our high-performance nonwoven material is designed to provide high levels of filtration for various types of face masks,” says John Vasuta, president of JM’s Engineered Products business.
In Wisconsin, 5K Fibers, a filtration media focused company started by Doug Brown, the CEO of meltblown equipment supplier Biax-Fiberfilm, has shifted much of its output to supply the facial mask market. The company is currently operating two lines at its original facility in Greenville and is weeks away from starting up new capacity, which is a mix of old and new technology, at a former Kimberly-Clark facility in Neenah, WI.
The company expects its production startup at the new facility as early as June. With Brown’s patented technology and association with other equipment suppliers around the world, the transition is expected to be a smooth one. Three 60-inch-wide production lines are planned. The nonwoven meltblown fabric and a patented spunblown system that produces fabrics that few others in the world can create are currently being produced at the headquarter’s Greenville factory. It is enough for about 3.5 million masks per day.
These complicated nonwovens fabrics consist of synthetic fibers stretched in an airstream and flattened into rolls for mask production. Exacting standards must be met, and quality controls are part of the process.
“Our materials have been used in masks, physicians’ PPE and in the filtration industry,” says Brown. “A key is the breathable, yet tight ‘knit’ result that keeps out the virus. Right now what we are doing is 100% for the face mask market and we will do that until the need is filled.”
Not Just Nonwovens
On the raw material side, Tredegar Corporation, a global supplier of apertured films and elastic fabrics, is taking an active and global role to help combat the COVID-19 outbreak. Tredegar Personal Care is increasing output of breathable, liquid penetration-resistant apertured films that are used in medical facemasks and N95 respirators.
In addition, Tredegar produces a versatile line of elastic laminate solutions sold under the FlexAire brand which can be used for ear loops and headbands for face masks, N95 respirators and face shields.
“We are dedicated to improving the well-being of our end-use consumers through the production of essential products that provide safety and assurance for the medical and hygiene markets. Our current technologies and R&D efforts enable Tredegar to quickly respond with product-driven solutions to support the rapid manufacturing required for personal protective equipment (PPE) applications,” explains Steve Johnston, director of global sales and marketing.
Johnston continues, “Our FlexAire elastic fabrics are ideally suited to provide comfortable, reliable fit in PPE, such as fac masks and face shields. Our sister company, Bright View Technologies, is now using our elastic laminate for a headband in its newly-developed face shield, and we are working with other PPE producers to quickly put protective equipment into the hands of healthcare first responders.”
Another film manufacturer RKW, Sporlastic, a company specialized on the production of bandages and orthoses, is working with partners to jointly produce urgently needed FFP-2 type protective masks to fight the Coronavirus global pandemic. The partners were able to develop a mask, containing an RKW-produced spunbond nonwoven laminate, in just two weeks.
Production has been running at full speed for a few days with the aim of achieving a weekly capacity of about 750,000 masks. “The current COVID-19 pandemic is a challenge for society as a whole, which we are meeting with our resources and expertise. We are very pleased and proud that we have been able to successfully participate in the development and production of the urgently needed protective masks within a very short period of time,” says Harald Biederbick, chairman of the executive board of the RKW Group based in Frankenthal.
Diaper Companies React
As nonwovens producers react quickly to ensure there is enough capacity to meet the demands of the face mask market, companies spanning a range of consumer markets are ramping up mask production. Because of the similarities between the construction of masks and absorbent hygiene products, makers of diapers and feminine hygiene products are at the forefront of these efforts.
Last month, Procter & Gamble announced it was converting manufacturing capacity to make face masks at nearly a dozen manufacturing sites globally. According to CEO David Taylor, mask production started in China and is now spreading to North America, Europe, and Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa.
The efforts will increase the supply of masks for hospitals, first responders and other organizations by reducing market demand for production and industrial use; help create a safe working environment for P&G people, and, in the long term, it will allow the company to directly help many communities across the globe where there is unprecedented need for protective supplies.
One site reportedly set to begin face mask production is located in Mehoopany, PA, where production should begin making masks in mid-May.
“It will increase the supply of masks for hospitals, first responders and other organizations by reducing market demand for production and industrial use. It helps us create a safe working environment for P&G people, and long term, it will allow us to directly help many communities across the globe where there is unprecedented need for protective supplies,” says P&G Charmin and Family Care communications spokesman Loren Fanroy.
The effort requires installation of new equipment or adjustments to existing equipment, as well as new supplies and training. The company will direct donations with established partners who have the capability and reach to help those affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, P&G communications manager Tracey Long says. The masks won’t be sold and the company won’t be able to respond to individual requests for help.
The P&G Mehoopany plant maes Charmin toilet tissue and Bounty paper towels and napkins and well as the Pampers and Luvs diaper brands.
Other sites reportedly shifting to face mask production are P&G’s facilities in Cabuyao City in the Philippines and in Roorekee, India.
In addition to P&G, Sweden’s Essity has announced plans to make masks to supply the Swedish market and South American hygiene specialist CMPC has announced it will soon be able to make 18.5 million masks per month.
CMPC has added five mask lines in four countries — Chile, Brazil, Peru and Mexico. In each country, the masks will be delivered free of charge to public health services, and only the percentage necessary for the care of company workers will be reserved. Delivery is expected to begin in Chile in early May.
Researchers using spunbond and meltblown materials for masks
The Nonwovens Institute (NWI) at North Carolina State University is using its two research and training pilot production lines to produce face mask materials that will be used to protect medical workers on the front lines of fighting the effects of COVID-19.
Surgical face masks are made with nonwoven materials, says Behnam Pourdeyhimi, executive director of NWI, Wilson College of Textiles associate dean for industry research and extension, and William A. Klopman, distinguished professor.
N95 respirators and surgical masks are generally a sandwich of one or two common nonwoven layers – so-called spunbond layers that provide mask shape and protect the inner filtration layer – combined with a layer of nonwoven meltblown material that serves as the filtration layer and captures microscopic unwanted particles like viruses and bacteria.
But because of the current critical need for masks caused by COVID-19, Pourdeyhimi and his NWI team created a new spunbond material that can serve as an effective filter without the need for a meltblown filtration layer. The unique fabric is composed of two different polymer materials that are combined to make a single fiber with significant strength and bulk – and that show effectiveness in filtration similar to current materials used.
“Because of the COVID-19 crisis, we took the spunbond technology and created a new generation of unique filters that have excellent filtering capability and can be potentially be reused after cleaning with peroxide, or potentially alcohol solution,” Pourdeyhimi says. “Because these materials are strong, unlike classical meltblown filters, they can also be cut and sewn by traditional techniques.”
Typically, one meter of spunbond material provides enough material for about 20 to 25 masks when using the current designs, Pourdeyhimi said. One of the NWI’s production lines started producing 2000 meters of spunbond material per hour, with the potential to create some 20,000 meters of spunbond material in a day. NC State is currently in discussion with industrial partners who have been designing masks with the material who will use this material to make masks.
NWI’s other production line is a state-of-the-art meltblowing pilot line that will make the classical meltblown material for N95 masks and surgical masks.
“We created a recipe for the production of classical N95 respirator materials and will ship those materials out for industrial partners to convert these into respirators,” Pourdeyhimi says.
The meltblown material takes a bit more time to produce; Pourdeyhimi estimates that his production line can make about 12,000 meters of material in one work shift.
Thanks to support from across the university, Pourdeyhimi says that NC State has ordered machines that will allow the NWI to make surgical masks in its Centennial Campus facilities. Those machines should arrive in the next month.
“We will set these machines up and take our own materials and convert them into masks and provide them to local communities,” Pourdeyhimi says.
Pourdeyhimi said the outpouring of support offered internally by units such as the Office of Research and Innovation, the Office of Finance and Administration, the Office of the Provost, the Wilson College of Textiles and The Kenan Institute, as well as externally by industry partners, has been overwhelming.
ExxonMobil, for example, offered polymer materials to the university at no cost. Mask material production eats up approximately 25,000 pounds of polymer per week. Chemical manufacturing company NatureWorks has also offered polylactic acid (PLA) polymer for this effort. PLA is in short supply, but NatureWorks has secured the supply for NWI to ensure continuous production.
“North Carolina has the largest number of nonwoven companies in the nation, so we are reaching out to them to see if they would also invest in converting machines (that would turn mask materials into masks),” Pourdeyhimi says.
He added that, in order to increase the capacity of meltblown fabrics, “We are looking at possibly changing the way companies are producing things so that we might be able to produce filters that would be useful during this crisis. We are putting a lot of partnerships in place to be able to expand the amount of materials that are available both locally and nationwide.
“I’ve never seen the community come together the way it has,” he adds.