Count real estate developer Joe Fallon among the businesspeople who are picking up new skills because of the pandemic.
The Boston developer is branching out into manufacturing by investing in a joint venture with a West Bridgewater textile manufacturer, Shawmut Corp., that will produce as many as 180 million N95 respirator masks a year.
When the enterprise on Manley Street is at full tilt a year from now, it will employ an additional 200 to 300 workers, on top of Shawmut’s existing global workforce of 700. That would make the new Shawmut-branded plant, in about 70,000 square feet of industrial space that Shawmut already controls, one of the biggest and busiest producers of personal protective equipment in Massachusetts.
Fallon secured a nearly $2.8 million grant from the state’s Manufacturing Emergency Response Team program to acquire 60 tons of machinery from Reifenhauser, a German manufacturer, to make the medical-grade masks. That equipment landed in the Port of Boston last week and is being unpacked in West Bridgewater this week.
Fallon declined to put a precise number on the new plant’s cost, saying it’s in the “tens of millions.”
“With 15 million masks a month, you’re going to have masks for those smaller facilities that are just forgotten because they’re not buying in bulk,” Fallon said. “This is not a money grab. This is to take care of the underserved, the ones that are forgotten.”
More than 50 Massachusetts manufacturers have pivoted this year to making PPE, such as lower-cost masks, face shields, and gowns, many with advice and funds from the state MERT program. (Shawmut is already making gowns.) However, only two other manufacturers in the state, Gerson and Baril Corp., are believed to be making N95 masks today.
Fallon, whose most prominent project in Boston is the massive Fan Pier redevelopment, said his interest in manufacturing started almost immediately after the COVID-19 pandemic hit Boston in March. As he describes it, he received a frantic call from the Boston Home nursing facility in Dorchester. Its staff badly needed N95 masks. Lives were on the line. Fallon used his connections in the city to make sure the Boston Home received the masks. But he realized the state could be in a precarious position if the coronavirus surged again.
So Fallon set about assembling a production line that would try to ensure no facility would need to go outside of Massachusetts again for these important masks. Eventually, he realized he needed a partner with considerable manufacturing and logistics experience and dialed up James Wyner, chief executive at Shawmut.
“It’s a heavy lift, what goes into producing N95 masks,” Fallon said. “I fully appreciate why there aren’t plants popping up all over the country.”
Wyner said he heard from Fallon in August, and they quickly hit it off. They bonded over the fact their respective companies are both family-owned.
Fallon said he now spends half of his working time every day on the N95 project. “I’m happy building buildings,” he said. “I’m not a manufacturer like he is.”
Wyner said having someone with construction management expertise like Fallon on board has been key to expediting the project. “He really knows how to drive a construction timeline,” Wyner said of Fallon.
Wyner said he expects Shawmut to have prototypes made next month, in time for mass production to start early next year.
The Shawmut-Fallon venture is the latest success story for the MERT program. Mike Tamasi, cochair of the state’s Advanced Manufacturing Collaborative, said that few, if any, states launched a PPE production initiative as quickly as the Baker administration and the quasi-public Massachusetts Technology Collaborative did with the MERT program.
Universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute played key roles, he said.
“We have people calling MassTech and other state officials, asking how we did this,” said Tamasi, who runs the AccuRounds precision machining plant in Avon. “We’re one of the leaders in the entire country.”