When Governor Charlie Baker ordered all non-essential businesses to close amid the coronavirus outbreak, footwear company New Balance complied and temporarily shuttered its factories and retail stores.
No more than a week later, however, the factories reopened their doors.
Fifty employees, a fraction of the typical workforce, are back on the job at New Balance’s flagship factory in Lawrence — not to manufacture sneakers, but face masks.
“Making masks became essential,” said Dave Wheeler, the company’s executive vice president of global supply chain, in a telephone interview.
State government, as well as Massachusetts General Hospital, reached out for assistance: How could New Balance repurpose its local facilities to help produce much-needed medical supplies? The government shared a list of items in high demand, the majority of which was personal protective equipment (PPE).
New Balance immediately assembled a team to begin brainstorming. After considering a face shield, the group decided on a single-use face mask.
Using preexisting equipment at its Lawrence factory, New Balance constructed multiple prototypes per day that would then be tested at MGH or Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Based on the feedback from healthcare workers, the team made any recommended modifications.
“Typically, that would take months and months,” Wheeler said. “We did it within one week, given the sense of urgency.”
When developing the design, with collaboration from hospitals and MIT, New Balance focused on two key features: filtration and fit. The final product consists of a five-ply laminated fabric as the covering of the mask and elastic shoelaces as the adjustable straps, allowing the wearer to achieve a tighter fit if needed.
The goal is to produce a total of 100,000 masks per week between the Lawrence factory and the one located in Norridgewock, Maine, where another 70 employees are back to work.
Wheeler said Monday production is “ahead of schedule” and the first 100,000 are expected to be done by Wednesday. The company, which has two factories in Massachusetts and three in Maine, is still exploring whether it can gain additional capacity from its current equipment and team.
Distribution also began this week, according to Wheeler, with some hospitals scheduled to receive a shipment as early as Wednesday. Delivery will initially remain local, assisting hospitals in New England, though there is hope of eventually expanding.
New Balance joins New Hampshire-based Bauer as local companies to shift their focus during the coronavirus pandemic. Bauer, known for its hockey and lacrosse equipment, has already produced thousands of medical shields that are ready for distribution.
Shields are still on New Balance’s radar, too, as the company is fielding requests for more PPE and is looking into other product lines. Gowns and foot coverings are other options.
“All the things you hear from anybody on TV, we’re taking a look at it and just kind of seeing if it makes any sense at all for us to jump into that,” Wheeler said.
The company is considering items only with manufacturing processes that align with the material and equipment already at its factories. The masks, for example, require two key systems: an automated, computer-controlled cutter and a heat press. The cutter creates the eyelets for the straps, while the heat press eliminates the need for stitching.
“It is very quick,” Wheeler said. “Sewing does take quite a bit longer. Not only is it not good for the performance of a mask, but it is much quicker. It’s one pass through the heat press and out the other side.”
New Balance doesn’t know how long it will be producing PPE. Wheeler said the company is “pursuing break-even” and plans to assist as long as it is able.
“We have an awful lot of interest out there, for sure,” Wheeler said.