When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the long-standing overseas supply chains the U.S. relied on for personal protective equipment such as masks weren't enough to satisfy demand. The pandemic also disrupted business for many manufacturers whose products were suddenly in less demand. Making needed PPE was a way for companies to help out and to buoy their bottom lines.
Now, some companies see PPE as a growth opportunity for the future.
That's the case at Cleveland PPE, a new division of Lefco Worthington L.L.C. in Cleveland.
Lefco Worthington makes commercial and industrial wood packaging. President and CEO Larry Fulton also runs Hanlon Composites L.L.C., a maker of fiberglass products. The PPE work is a departure from both markets, but Fulton said he saw an opportunity to help.
When COVID-19 hit, the U.S. didn't have a strong domestic supply chain for PPE, leading to shortages, especially of the N95 masks needed by medical workers.
"That spoke to me. It spoke to me greatly," Fulton said. "Out of that concern was the action. So we formed Cleveland PPE, and we went after this grant fairly aggressively. And we got it."
In the second quarter of 2020, Lefco was awarded a $290,000 grant from the state of Ohio to make face masks and other PPE. Fulton got to work sourcing equipment and materials, and clearing out space for a clean room.
The clean room takes up about 6,000 square feet in Lefco's Cleveland facility. The room has its own filtration, pressurization and HVAC systems, Fulton said.
Production began at the start of February. Lefco installed a fully automated, 50-foot production line dedicated to the mask-making operation. The company can make about 30 masks a minute, or about 12,000 a day, Fulton said.
Cleveland PPE is focusing on N95-style masks and seeking National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval to be able to label them as such.
"We wanted to focus on the N95 market because we felt as though that would be a longer term, more sustainable product that we could sell into multiple markets," Fulton said.
Fulton expects the demand for these products to continue, due to the rising COVID-19 variants. And he said he'd consider it a "good thing" if he was wrong on that count and would turn his focus to selling into other markets, such as construction and manufacturing. Cleveland PPE is currently making five-layer masks with and without valves, Fulton said. The masks with valves are used in settings such as construction when COVID isn't a consideration.
Companies entering the PPE market for the long run have to make sure they're making a cost-competitive product, said Brandon Cornuke, vice president of strategy and startup services at Cleveland-based MAGNET, the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network. Fulton is a board member at the nonprofit.
It quickly became apparent last year that there was more demand than supply in the PPE market, and MAGNET was among the organizations to ask if Ohio manufacturers could step up and help fill that gap. At the same time, Cornuke said, the state began providing funding for companies that wanted to retool and make these kinds of products going forward, like Cleveland PPE.
People won't buy these products just because they were made domestically, he said. But domestic supply chains may have the benefit of appearing more secure or predictable to U.S. companies and institutions.
"How you value that is tough, and the economic equation has got to make sense," Cornuke said.
Cleveland PPE is working to keep costs competitive. It has four dedicated employees, and Lefco is providing much of the overhead, allowing the division to produce masks at a lower cost and sell them competitively priced. As of Feb. 11, its valveless masks were advertised for sale at $2.50.
Cleveland PPE's products are currently being sold on its website, and Fulton said the company also will do business via online vendors such as Amazon. And once the company's masks are N95 certified, Fulton plans to sell them directly to the medical community.
Cleveland PPE also plans to make and sell acrylic sneeze guards and to distribute hand sanitizer products.
While Cleveland PPE is currently part of Lefco Worthington, Fulton expects to spin out the division as its own entity in the future.