Europe: Masks Mania Exposes Reliance on China, Rekindle Industry

Published April 18th, 2020 - 11:00 GMT
Europe: Masks Mania Exposes Reliance on China, Rekindle Industry
Europe-based businesses such as Innovatec and Berry are counting on public-sector commitments to ensure that buying local will outlive the pandemic. (Shutterstock)
Highlights
US, German companies considering plans to tackle Asian rivals.

As countries scramble for face masks to protect their health care workers from the coronavirus, German and US manufacturers in Europe are seeing an opportunity more permanently to take on big Asian rivals and bring mask production closer to home.

Treating a single patient requires the daily use of about 15 so-called N95 masks, according to recommendations by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). With about 700,000 Europeans living with the infection, that translates into a daily need for about 10 million N95 masks, or more than 3.8 billion a year.

Both the heavy-duty N95 respirator masks, also known as FFP2, and simpler surgical masks require a fine synthetic meltblown
fabric used as filters.

Germany’s family-owned Innovatec GmbH & Co. KG is due in mid-June to boost production of the fabric while US packaging group Berry Global and Germany’s unlisted Sandler, plan to bring new European production lines for the filtering fabric on stream in August.

Unlike many manufacturers that have stepped into medical equipment temporarily to meet unexpected soaring demand, Innovatec said it was looking at long term production, aiming to boost output of meltblown polypropylene to enable additional production of 2 billion masks
per year.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Europe scrambles to rekindle mask industry.

• Companies convert machines meant for other uses.

• Asia is dominant supplier of protective gear, masks.

• Meltblown investments underway to ease bottleneck.

Due to Asia’s dominance in production of medical protective gear, masks have not been a focus for Innovatec. Only a few of the company’s production lines can be quickly retooled from their would-be industrial use to make mask-grade material.

“Now many are frantically looking for raw materials,” said Daniel Krumme, Innovatec’s managing director.

Krumme has repurposed two machines, ordered last year to make filter media for industrial clients, to produce mask components. Starting mid-June, they will create 2,000 tons in additional annual output capacity.

Bavaria-based Sandler is investing in a production line to make meltblown for up to 800 million masks per year, though production is not expected before August.

US firm Berry said it would boost meltblown output for N95 masks in Biesheim, France, also from August, serving Europe and adjacent regions. Like Innovatec, Berry is pivoting from serving industrial air filtration customers to medical masks.

Innovatec said it would likely add another 1,000 tons of annual meltblown output from November.

US rival Hollingsworth & Vose as well as Germany’s unlisted Freudenberg also make meltblown in Europe and have said they are working
to boost output of mask materials.

Europe-based businesses such as Innovatec and Berry are counting on public-sector commitments to ensure that buying local will outlive the pandemic.

“We do believe countries will re-localize face mask production given the experience gained from this crisis,” said Cedric Ballay, Berry’s General Manager for Health, Hygiene, & Specialties for the region.


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