In times of need, manufacturing is driven by a philosophy John Lennon said best, “There are no problems, only solutions.” Today, manufacturers have pivoted to produce the critical supplies and equipment necessary to battle COVID-19 at a rate never seen before. SME’s Humans of Manufacturing Heroes Edition tells the stories of the teams, companies and partnerships adapting to produce the tools needed to fight this global pandemic. Going behind the scenes to share how these once-in-a-lifetime transformations are happening and the people making it all possible.
It’s not every day that the 30 women and men at The Nonwovens Institute at North Carolina State University find themselves working 12-hour shifts, six days a week and sometimes overnight to manufacture a product. In fact, it was never the case prior to mid-March 2020. That’s when they yanked themselves out of the sedate world of academia to stand up a full-fledged factory that by the end of 2020 had shipped 7 million meters of filter used to make more than 100 million masks for the battle against COVID-19.
“Our typical life in the university setting is pretty relaxed,” said Behnam Pourdeyhimi, the institute’s executive director. “We, as professors, come to work, teach and work on interesting projects. But now we are dealing with the logistics of material production, materials receiving and shipping and packaging and quality assurance. So, it’s a completely different ballgame.”
Pourdeyhimi (pronounced Por-dah-HE-me) didn’t miss a beat when executives from a number of companies approached him in late February 2020 at a filtration trade show in Chicago, asking if he could transform the institute’s highly automated and sensored-up pilot production facilities into a factory for PPE (personal protective equipment).
“Already, nobody was shaking hands. Everybody had started doing social distancing,” he said. “All we talked about was that a tsunami was coming. We knew we’d be hampered by lack of supply. People were brainstorming about how to help. We were energized with all of those discussions.”
He counts his blessings that his institute had built “large pilot facilities in the last 20 years,” he said. “Still, there is no button you can push that says, ‘Make me a filter for face masks.’ So, when we came back to the lab, we had to build a piece of machinery to help us electrostatically charge the filters. So, we built that. We also then figured out how to create filters that would have the right kind of performance for surgical masks, as well as N95 masks. And by mid-March [last year], we went into production using our pilot facilities.”
It was possible to accomplish that in two short weeks not only because of the tremendous knowledge and knowhow that has been created by the institute over the last 30 years, but also because the Raleigh, N.C.-based institute employs an interdisciplinary team, Pourdeyhimi said:
“To solve the grand challenges of the world, you need an interdisciplinary team to come together. Our team is truly interdisciplinary: We have fiber engineers, polymer scientists, chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, chemists and more. We have an interdisciplinary approach to solving problems, as well as education that brings together all the learnings that our great disciplines teach us. We’re taking the best of engineering and chemistry and science and putting it together to solve problems. To me, that has been the amazing part of this journey.”
The Nonwovens Institute isn’t only providing meltblown filters to mask manufacturers; it is also “making something completely different,” he said. “The spunbond filter we created has three times the capacity of the meltblown. The meltblown fabrics are also really fragile. You have to make sure you can handle them properly and not damage them. But the spunbond is a really strong fabric. You cannot damage it.”
To create the spunbond filter required a very unique piece of equipment: Over the last few years, the institute has worked with companies like Hills, a U.S. firm that builds unique bicomponent fiber extrusion units, and European companies like Reifenhäuser, Andritz and A.Celli to assemble a unique set of capabilities that enabled the institute to make unique products, such as the new face mask filter.
About a dozen face mask makers in the U.S., including Hanes and Freudenberg Performance Materials, are using rolls of filter from the institute. They make N95s, pleated surgical masks and “community masks” used in the workplace and beyond. “We are touching not only the medical community but also the general community at large,” Pourdeyhimi said.
For most of 2020, the COVID-crushing campaign has completely consumed the institute. And of course the institute had to implement very stringent safety measures following the guidelines established by N.C. State to avoid the virus. (As of this interview, no staffer had tested positive for COVID-19.) “The heroes here are the staff who since March have been working 12-hour shifts, sometimes two shifts,” he said. “We are fortunate to have an amazing team of dedicated and knowledgeable staff.”
The end of the institute’s foray into full-scale making is not yet in sight.
“I believe we will be doing this at least for another year,” Pourdeyhimi said. “I have several companies waiting to get materials from us. There appears to be a shortage of the base material in the country. There’s a lot of chatter about supply chain security and not being dependent on imports. I think you’re going to see a big push for domestic production, for critical things like PPE. However, at the end of the day, we are an institute. We are doing our part to help. But we are not going to be a manufacturer forever. At some point in time, we’re going to go back to who we used to be.”