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Manufacturing a coronavirus defense: companies like L.L. Bean transition to medical gear production

Sarah Dodson held up a string of uncut masks at the L.L. Bean plant in Brunswick, Maine.
Sarah Dodson held up a string of uncut masks at the L.L. Bean plant in Brunswick, Maine.Blake Nissen/for the Boston Globe

BRUNSWICK, Maine — It started about two weeks ago with a call from MaineHealth, the state’s largest health care organization, asking whether L.L. Bean, the iconic maker of boots and flannel shirts, might be able to address the severe shortage of protective gear that health care workers need to stay safe during the coronavirus outbreak.

By Monday, 20 workers, clad in face masks and gloves, and standing at least six feet apart, got to work at the company’s Brunswick factory assembling masks out of the white nylon fabric typically used to line Bean dog beds. They labored amid silent machines laden with partially-stitched Bean boots, like they’d been abandoned mid-shift. Supervisors walked the floor, checking that everyone adhered to the new health protocols.

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By the end of the shift, the Bean workers had produced 5,000 masks for MaineHealth, which has opted to help cover the cost of materials and labor.

Tej Dickens measured out the ties on masks behind a pile of incomplete boots at the L.L. Bean plant.
Tej Dickens measured out the ties on masks behind a pile of incomplete boots at the L.L. Bean plant.Blake Nissen/For the Boston Globe

Bean is just one of numerous manufacturers across New England, from iconic brands to specialty shops, which are pivoting to making protective gear desperately needed in the battle against the highly contagious virus. The mobilization echoes the industrial ramp-up sparked by World War II, only this time the effort is far more ad hoc, rather than directed by the federal government rallying the nation to a common cause.

"For our communities, and specifically for our friends in the medical community, we want to use any and all of our resources to serve them during this unprecedented time,” Steve Smith, L.L. Bean’s chief executive, said in a statement.

Democratic governors and other public officials continue to call on President Trump to use the Defense Production Act to compel manufacturers to make test kits, ventilators, and protective gear amid widespread shortages of these crucial supplies. So far, Trump has only invoked the Cold War-era law to direct General Motors to make ventilators, preferring instead to rely on voluntary efforts by US businesses.

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Lesley Raffel stitched a tag onto the nearly completed mask.
Lesley Raffel stitched a tag onto the nearly completed mask.Blake Nissen/For the Boston Globe

Like Bean, numerous major brands are pitching in. Bauer, a hockey company based in Exeter, N.H., is mass-producing face shields out of materials typically used to make helmets and other hockey gear, an idea initiated by company employees.

Boston-based New Balance announced it is working on prototypes for face masks in its Lawrence manufacturing facility, and is aiming to scale up production at its other New England factories soon.

The Brooks Brothers clothing company is shifting its factories in Massachusetts and elsewhere from making suits, ties, and shirts, to creating masks and gowns. The retailer, which aims to produce up to 150,000 masks a day, is working with Stop The Spread, a coalition of corporate CEOs who are trying to organize US companies to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, which has already claimed more than 3,000 American lives.

Smaller operations are also marshaling their resources to help front-line health care workers.

Nate Laine counted masks before packaging them next to reams of shoelaces at the L.L. Bean plant in Brunswick, Maine.
Nate Laine counted masks before packaging them next to reams of shoelaces at the L.L. Bean plant in Brunswick, Maine.Blake Nissen/For the Boston Globe

In Lowell, Stephen Katz switched his high-speed sewing factory from making reusable bags to creating masks in just one day, before any orders had even come in. “We knew this was serious and something we could do to respond,” Katz said by e-mail.

His team at UnWrapped Inc. designed their own mask, and after a week, the company’s roughly 200 employees are churning out 8,500 masks a day for local hospitals and health care centers.

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“Manufacturing is a tough business in America, and I’m very proud we are here to do our part to keep our health care workers and many others safe,” Katz said.

Brenna Schneider, founder and owner of 99Degrees Custom in Lawrence, hopes to ink a “large scale” contract in the next couple of days to start producing isolation gowns, a crucial piece of protective gear donned by health care workers treating patients.

Her team, which pre-coronavirus produced activewear and wearable technology, has developed a pattern and has its supply chain lined up. But for the health of her workforce, she doesn’t plan to reopen her factory until the order is secured and “we feel we are truly an essential business,” Schneider said.

“It’s a really delicate balance," said Schneider, who started 99Degrees in 2013 and employs 150 people. "Its not just as simple as opening up and manufacturing something different. There’s a lot of considerations.” That includes figuring out how to restart production in a way that will protect workers’ health, such as securing portable hand-washing stations.

Yvonne Geraldoy tossed a pleated mask into a bin.
Yvonne Geraldoy tossed a pleated mask into a bin.Blake Nissen/For the Boston Globe

Schneider said her company got help navigating the transition from the state’s Manufacturing Emergency Response Team, an effort spearheaded by the governor’s Advanced Manufacturing Collaborative, an industry-led advisory board focused on supporting the state manufacturing industry.

A collaboration between industry, academic institutions, and government, the emergency response team is focused on “products that were tested and would properly protect doctors,” Schneider said.

With their advice, her team took their time to research federal regulations and requirements for medical gear, “so we can build something that matters,” she said, including a product that has been tested for efficacy.

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In the roughly two weeks since the state’s emergency team launched, more than 200 companies have expressed interest in adapting their manufacturing in some way to help the coronavirus fight, according to emergency response team officials. Only a handful are expected to get into mass production soon.

The group, which is working closely with the governor’s command center, formed to coordinate production of critical medical items such as ventilators, respirators, surgical masks, and other protective gear. They have teams dedicated to helping companies obtain necessary design elements, source specialty materials, and connect with buyers.

In one initial step, the group sent out a survey to manufacturers across the state last week to “index” the state’s manufacturing capacity, asking companies to detail the type and number of machines they have in production plants, what sort of materials they know how to work with, among other questions.

“I’ve been super impressed by the state of Massachusetts, which is taking a very scientific and data-driven approach to responding” to shortages, said Schneider.

Still, experts say a nationally coordinated effort led by the federal government would be far more effective than the patchwork approach states and individual companies are taking.

“We don’t have a unifying policy or unifying voice," said Nada Sanders, a professor of supply chain management at Northeastern University. Particularly for highly complex medical equipment such as ventilators, retooling a factory requires a giant financial investment. Companies "need some kind of directive and protection, if you will,” such as an executive order they can show shareholders and say “we were told to do this.”

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Federal coordination would ease up supply chain bottlenecks, which are affecting even small distilleries trying to produce hand sanitizer, as well as possible tamp down on the hoarding of everything from certain drugs to toilet paper, said Sanders. “Having the whole country work in concert” would help “squelch the panic across the board,” she said.

In the meantime, health care providers are thankful for those companies who are stepping up.

“There’s really two layers to this," said John Porter, a spokesman for MaineHealth, a nonprofit system that is buying the masks from Bean, and runs nine community hospitals among other facilities in the state.

There’s the practical help that these efforts provide to hospitals and health facilities, allowing them to conserve their supplies of protective gear, he said. “Probably even more than that, is for the men and women who are on the front lines, for them to know that the organizations in their community are supportive of them makes a huge difference,” said Porter. “It means a lot.”

Globe correspondent Blake Nissen contributed to this report.


Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.