Some manufacturers that shifted their factories to make personal protective equipment in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic have reverted back to their primary products.
But Shawmut Corp., a fabric manufacturer based in West Bridgewater, is just getting started with its ambitious PPE production effort. It’s an effort that could make Shawmut one of the largest producers of N95 masks in the country.
Thanks to an unusual partnership with a Boston real estate developer, Joe Fallon, Shawmut has launched an N95 mask production facility at its West Bridgewater campus. Shawmut has hired about 100 people to staff the production line so far, roughly doubling its workforce at the plant since embarking on this initiative last fall. Chief executive James Wyner said he hopes to employ 350 people in the N95 operation by early next year; he’s able to bring that number to 500 eventually.
The company received certification for its Protex N95 mask from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health last month. Shawmut is steadily ramping up production, with the capacity to make several million masks a week. Wyner expects to be churning out 10 million a month by the end of the year, and eventually up to 15 million a month, or 180 million a year.
Last week, company officials unveiled the NIOSH certification and a multiyear distribution agreement with Waltham-based Thermo Fisher Scientific, an announcement timed with a tour of the plant by Governor Charlie Baker and members of Baker’s leadership team.
To some extent, the Baker administration is an investor, as well. Shawmut received a nearly $2.8 million grant from the state’s Manufacturing Emergency Response Team program last year to acquire machinery from the German manufacturer Reifenhauser to make the medical-grade masks.
The Fallon-Shawmut venture was the largest single recipient of grant money through the $16 million program the Baker administration established to help local manufacturers pivot their operations to confront the pandemic. Nearly half of that state money went to the development of protective masks, 20 percent for COVID-19 tests, 20 percent for gowns, and smaller amounts for ventilators, hand sanitizers, and other pandemic-related expenses.
In a January post on LinkedIn, Wyner said Shawmut and Fallon had committed $20 million to their N95 mask venture. The masks get their name because they feature filters that block 95 percent of airborne particles. These masks were in short supply last spring, when medical professionals badly needed them.
Even as the pandemic-related demand recedes, Wyner expects the demand for everyday uses of these Protex-brand masks will remain strong in industrial and health care sectors, particularly as federal policy makers and hospital executives show an increased desire to support domestic production. None of them want to see another shortage.
“Really, it’s about substituting US production for foreign imports,” Wyner said.
Fallon, perhaps best known in Boston for his Fan Pier redevelopment, became involved after getting a frantic call from the Boston Home nursing facility in Dorchester soon after the pandemic hit. The staff badly needed N95 masks. The well-connected developer made sure the facility got the masks. But the episode prompted him to think about the precariousness of the supply chain.
So Fallon began working on assembling his own production line, with the ambitious goal of ensuring no health care facility would need to go out of state to get N95 masks in the future. He decided he needed an experienced manufacturing partner, which is how he connected with Wyner. Their N95 mask line is run out of a 70,000-square-foot section of Shawmut’s plant.
Fallon is a veteran in the development world. But manufacturing has been a bit of a baptism by fire, a challenge that he embraced.
“I’ve been way over my skis for the past nine months,” Fallon said. “When I saw the 15 containers come into the Seaport in South Boston and realized we had this equipment coming in, I asked myself, what the hell did I just do? [But] we’re over the hump now.”
Other major domestic manufacturers have also responded. Most notably, market leader 3M rapidly increased its mask production capacity early in 2020. The Minnesota company now makes 95 million N95 respirator masks a month in the United States alone and is on track to make 2.5 billion a year globally. Those numbers represent a fourfold increase from 2019, according to a spokeswoman.
The N95 production capacity at Charlotte, N.C.-based Honeywell, meanwhile, is roughly 50 times what it was a year ago, a spokesman said. Honeywell now makes about 1 billion N95 masks a year, he said, including with a new production line in Smithfield, R.I.
Shawmut, Wyner said, is doing its part in this important mission: to make sure the country never runs out of N95 masks again.