BAMA task force targets PPE production for COVID-19 crisis and beyond

Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield said the state’s business community has stepped up during the COVID-19 pandemic by shifting output to produce badly needed personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical gear for health care workers and ordinary citizens.

While most of these moves have been temporary, Canfield glimpses a potential opening for Alabama to become a domestic hub for permanent PPE production at a time when overseas supply lines for these items is being viewed as unreliable.

“We’ve been engaged in exploratory discussions with a number of Alabama companies about the possibility of producing protective equipment on a full-time basis as the need for a domestic pipeline for these materials becomes more apparent,” he said. “Alabama can take the lead on this important reshoring initiative, which can create jobs at home and enhance national security at the same time.”

Since shortly after the COVID-19 outbreak occurred, Canfield has headed the Business and Manufacturing Alliance, or BAMA, a task force established by Gov. Kay Ivey to locate and assist producers of PPE and medical equipment and supplies across the state.

In this role, he has worked closely with Birmingham attorney Brian Rell, who heads a procurement task force set up by Ivey. David Klementz, chief strategy and development officer at Birmingham’s Encompass, has built a database to advance BAMA’s efforts. Officials from Alabama Power and the Business Council of Alabama have been active.

“Secretary Canfield quickly recognized the PPE supply chain problem and immediately began to work with our in-state manufacturers to retool their operations to meet the needs of our health care workers,” said Rell, who is a former chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt and was tapped to lead Ivey’s ad hoc Strategic Assets group tasked with PPE procurement.

“From sourcing much-needed manufacturing components for in-state business, to helping companies navigate the government processes for acceptance, Greg had his sleeves rolled up to help them be successful,” Rell said.

Cullman-based HomTex, a maker of bed linens and other products, has turned out 1 million cotton face masks since the coronavirus crisis began. The firm plans to begin making surgical masks after a major long-term investment. (HomTex)

Strategic shifts

The BAMA team identified about 50 Alabama companies that have the potential to produce PPE to meet emergency demand, while some could make a long-term shift to permanent production.

“I have worked on everything from helping source raw materials for companies to connecting companies for the purposes of linking them for production and working to launch startups,” Canfield said. “In addition, Commerce is working two projects at this point related to BAMA activity.”

One of those is HomTex Inc., a Cullman-based family firm that manufactures bed linens and other items. As orders for its traditional products dried up, company officials transitioned production to reusable cotton face masks, and orders began pouring in.

Supported by the Alabama Department of Commerce and local economic development officials, HomTex now plans to invest $5 million to install equipment to produce medical-grade surgical masks as a permanent domestic supplier. Read a story about the company’s plans.

Canfield said the Commerce Department has embraced recruiting PPE producers as a new strategy that aligns with the urgent need to establish a domestic pipeline for the production of these critical materials.

As with HomTex, some of these targets already have operations that can be reconfigured to produce protective equipment and medical supplies.

“A decision to make a change like this is never easy and has to be part of a long-term move for a company,” Canfield said. “There can be high capital costs to acquire new equipment and machinery, along with labor costs for training and hiring new workers.”

A face shield for medical professionals manufactured at the Toyota engine plant in Huntsville. Alabama automakers are making useful supplies or contributing large donations to assist in the fight against the COVID-19 virus. (Toyota Alabama)

Refocusing production

BAMA and its allies have worked with many Alabama companies, especially small manufacturers, to help them make a contribution in the fight against the coronavirus. These companies have shifted production lines to turn out protective face shields and items essential for health care workers, even if the production move isn’t planned to become permanent, Canfield said.

Among them:

  • Aptar CSP Technologies in Auburn has developed an N95 mask personal disinfecting system that allows the high-grade masks to be reused. The company is seeking U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for the process.
  • Renfro’s operating plant in Ft. Payne is expanding into reusable cloth masks designed with assistance from Wake Forest Baptist Health. Canfield is working with the company to see if the shift has long-term potential.
  • Huntsville’s GATR is working with UAH engineers to develop a ventilator that uses the unique pump technology used in the company’s inflatable communications balloons.
  • Mobile’s Calagaz Printing, whose business primarily centers on printing menus and items for restaurant chains, shifted production to face shields, quickly turning out more than 150,000. Canfield has begun exploratory talks focusing on the company entering this market on a permanent basis.

“From our perspective, we’re trying to do everything we can to identify and utilize the assets that we have in the state that can provide us with or produce the medical equipment and medical supplies that are needed during this crisis and beyond,” Canfield said.

Many of the state’s largest employers have contributed through producing PPE, such as face shields, or making donations, including Hyundai, which coordinated the delivery of 10,000 COVID-19 test kits from South Korea.

This story originally appeared on the Alabama Department of Commerce’s Made in Alabama website.

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