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Acton skate-sharpening company back to work — making medical masks

Sparx Hockey has committed to making 10,000 single-use shields a week.

Russ Layton (center) displays some of the materials he and his children, 15-year-old Owen and 14-year-old Grace, have used to assemble masks in the fight against COVID-19.
Russ Layton (center) displays some of the materials he and his children, 15-year-old Owen and 14-year-old Grace, have used to assemble masks in the fight against COVID-19.Handout (custom credit)/Sparx Hockey

Russ Layton was at a loss.

The CEO of Acton-based Sparx Hockey, which makes portable skate sharpening machines, was running a non-essential business in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. He furloughed 18 of his 25 workers after Governor Charlie Baker’s order to cease operations March 23. He was aching for them to return.

Hoping to help, Layton made a frustrated attempt at making breathing masks out of cloth. "It’s not something that was in our wheelhouse,” he said. "We’re good with die-cut parts and assembly, not sewing and clothes.”

A text arrived a week ago. An employee had seen a story about New Hampshire-based Bauer Hockey’s protective face shield. CEO Ed Kinnaly was happy to share the blueprint. Sparx’ sourcing people went after materials. The engineers handled the design.

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"Twenty-four hours later,we were in business again,” Layton said.

Sparx has committed to making 10,000 single-use shields a week, Layton said in a phone interview Friday. With help from the federal government’s $350 billion aid package for forgivable small business loans, he has rehired six of his employees. Also, Layton said his company heard from Massachusetts General Hospital, which believed Sparx’ die-cutting capabilities could help produce more personal protective equipment.

Layton said Mass. General asked for intubation boxes: transparent plastic cubes, with portholes on the sides for hands to pass through, that go over a patient’s head and protects clinicians from expelled fluids during airway procedures.

Layton said he was determining how much the company could invest in materials.

"We’re not in a great spot as a business,” he said, but standing by is not an option. "We’ve got to stop this.”

His company had almost all the material to make the masks, which resemble a welder’s mask. It had polyurethane foam for the headband, and elastics for the strapping. It found polystyrene suppliers for the shield. As for the final piece, Layton thought he hit a dead end. In need of plastic clips that hold the shield in place, a local molder told him their manufacturing was backed up 3-6 months.

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Turns out, Sparx’ die-cutting machines could do the job.

So Layton brought it to his home in Acton, and outfitted his garage with duct work to eliminate plastic fumes. His team makes daily deliveries of 9-inch-by-18-inch sheets, which are cut into 250 clips. His two children helping him, he feeds the machine for 10 hours a day, to make 4,000 clips a day, 20,000 clips a week.

He goes to the factory early to drop them off, as to avoid contacting anyone. His team rearranged their factory space to stay separated.

It will be a long time before the company will be rubbing elbows with the 25 NHL teams that use their skate sharpeners. But their hands are no longer idle.

"It’s a double win,” Layton said. "We get to help out. We were all sitting here, quarantined and waiting for this to be over, and now we can contribute in getting to the other side of this. And it takes a small business and gets it back to work.

"Everyone’s doing what they can. It’s the beauty of this country, right?”


Matt Porter can be reached at matthew.porter@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyports