In recent decades, much of our manufacturing economy shrank under the pressure of competition from China and other Asian countries and the movement of American jobs to places like Mexico. If you weren’t working in manufacturing, you reaped benefits in the form of lower-priced products.
But there were potential downsides to far-flung supply chains, as we discovered at the beginning of the pandemic when we couldn’t get masks. Much of the mask production was overseas. China, where the pandemic started, made half the world’s masks. As it battled to contain COVID-19 earlier this year, it kept its supply for its own health workers and citizens.
That created opportunities in the U.S. for folks with textile and manufacturing know-how. U.S. companies pivoted to make masks and other personal protective equipment. One was in Mount Airy just south of the Virginia line, located off the quintessential North Carolina road — Andy Griffith Parkway.
Three friends — Brad Ballentine, Rob Roach and Ben Webb — decided in March to launch mask production at their business, United Sewing Automation. Specifically, it happened when they were putting in a wood stove at Webb’s barn.
“That was the night we decided,” says Roach, who handles sales. “The next day we had machines ordered.”
“Within, roughly 30-45 days, we were producing,” says Ballentine, who has spent 30 years in the textile industry in the U.S., El Salvador and Mexico.
The company, which has 48 employees and uses American-made fabric, has produced millions of FDA-registered, lab-tested three-ply disposable masks, They are the kind that fits loosely around your face. On the company’s Facebook page, you can watch water poured into a mask. The water stays in the mask. They did that on our Zoom call last week.
The nose bridge is form-fitting, which deals with a problem I have had with various face coverings fogging up my glasses. Of course, my ability to wear a mask properly has evolved over the past eight months, so I was probably wearing them wrong last spring. It is yet another skill, like online grocery ordering, that I never expected to learn.
United Sewing employees work around systems that produce 80 to 100 masks a minute. Basically, layers of fabric are combined through a set of rollers, the nose bridge is placed on the right spot, a folder does its job and then the whole thing gets a series of welds with a truly amazing piece of equipment called an ultrasonic welding machine. The ear loops are attached with another ultrasonic welder.
“It’s extremely automated,” says Webb, who runs operations.
United Sewing operates in a distribution center building for Fish Hippie, a lifestyle apparel brand that Webb helped start.
Production was set up for 1 million masks a week, and the largest customer so far is the state of North Carolina, says Roach.
The bigger the order, the lower the price per mask, obviously. A single box of 50 runs $30, or 60 cents a mask.
One unknown is what demand will look like after a vaccine is distributed and the cases trend downward. My sense is that governments will pay more attention to keeping their stockpiles replenished. Also, mask-wearing may be with us for a while. There’s no telling how long it will be before you fly again, visit the doctor’s office, or ride in an elevator without a mask.
“We didn’t build this just to be a flash in the pan during the coronavirus,” says Ballentine. “We built this as a long-term solution to diversify the supply chain for health organizations and consumers. We created this situation so we could be here a long time.”