The Gillette factory in South Boston is preparing for war. But this time, it’s a different kind of fight, on a different kind of battlefield.
For the first time since World War II, the blade-and-razor factory along Fort Point Channel is churning out items other than shaving products. In the 1940s, it was aircraft parts. In 2020, it is face shields, for the state’s health care workers battling the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first batch of these shields, some 10,000 of them, was delivered on Monday to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. Gary Coombe, chief executive of Gillette parent Procter & Gamble’s grooming business, said the company has committed to making at least 100,000 shields, and will donate the components and the manpower to the cause for free.
P&G is among more than 400 companies that have approached Governor Charlie Baker’s administration about the newly created Manufacturing Emergency Response Team, a state program to help manufacturers pivot into making urgently needed personal protective equipment during the pandemic. Of those manufacturers, at least 140 are from out of state, including more than 20 from New Hampshire.
The administration launched this initiative about three weeks ago, to provide resources and advice for manufacturers. On Monday, Baker announced the state would be providing money, too: at least $10.6 million, from three different pots of state funds, to help manufacturers pay for equipment purchases and training.
Among the first to apply: 99Degrees, an activewear manufacturer in Lawrence. Chief executive Brenna Schneider furloughed most of her 150 employees last month, but she has offered to bring them all back to the factory floor starting on Wednesday to make 1 million gowns for the state emergency agency over the next 12 weeks. Schneider hopes to obtain some state funds to defray the costs of equipment purchases, with an eye toward more gown-making once the MEMA work is done.
Baker highlighted Schneider’s company during his daily press conference on Monday, and mentioned several other manufacturers that have started to pitch in: Somerville 3D printer company Formlabs (diagnostic swabs), popup card maker Lovepop (shields and gowns), Fall River apparel manufacturer Merrow (gowns), and athletic shoe maker New Balance (masks).
Few, if any, have the size and heft of P&G. The company is contributing in other ways, aside from the face-shield production. For example, it’s making hand sanitizer in 55-gallon drums at its Andover plant, for the Greater Boston Food Bank and the city of Boston’s first responders, and it’s donating razors and masks to health care workers.
The face-shield concept arose during a brainstorming session that local research and development employees held about two weeks ago. Rob Johnson, a principal engineer with P&G, said the team realized that the clear plastic used to package shaving products is the same kind of plastic used in the face shields worn by doctors and nurses over their masks. They tried out about 15 different prototypes, before settling on the model that went into mass production last week.
Coombe, the chief executive, said P&G is using plastic from its in-house supplies, while it ordered the two other components, foam and straps, from outside suppliers. Coombe said the factory is continuing to churn out blades and razors, deemed a necessity in part because health care workers should shave to get a better fit for masks — but has more than enough room in South Boston to assemble the face shields as well. P&G employs about 1,300 people in Massachusetts, in South Boston and Andover; many people work from home now, although some of those have opted to come into the Southie plant to help make the shields.
For Coombe, it’s a proud moment, watching his team step up to address the crisis. He said his employees are passionate about Gillette, and about helping their communities.
Expect more stories like Gillette’s in the coming weeks, with the potential for hundreds of manufacturers to participate in the state initiative, dubbed “M-ERT.” AccuRounds chief executive Michael Tamasi, who cochairs the effort with state economic development chief Mike Kennealy, said many manufacturers are only looking to be reimbursed for labor and materials, or are donating the protective gear outright.
Tamasi’s company, an Avon manufacturer, has an intriguing role in this coronavirus war: It makes mechanical components used by drug companies in the manufacturing of vaccines. Those components will be put to work, he said, as production of COVID-19 vaccines ramps up. It’s an important purpose, for sure. But as the workers at Gillette know, everyone can play a part in this fight.