Very early during the outbreak of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it rapidly became very clear that, around the world, one major challenge confronting health care and other workers was the overwhelming shortage of personal protective equipment, especially face masks.
How could this happen? Briefly, the world's mask manufacturing capacity was insufficient to meet demand, with the main bottleneck — according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development — in the value chain in terms of inputs being the supply of meltblown PP fabric needed to produce the masks.
Further problems arose due to disruptions in transport and logistics, as a result of export restrictions and bans.
At the start of the crisis, approximately half of the world's face masks were produced in China. This, however, was not enough to meet demand when COVID-19 started surging in the country, necessitating the import of huge quantities of PPE.
In January 2020, China needed an estimated 240 million masks a day, but it could only produce 20 million. The country responded by significantly boosting production, with companies such as Foxconn and China Petroleum and Chemical Corp. also turning to the manufacture of masks, until by the end of March it was producing as many as 200 million a day.
According to an OECD Policy Responses to Coronavirus report published on May 4, 103 companies were involved in stepping up production so that mask manufacturers would not face a shortage for their key input. Nonetheless, as the report also pointed out, while China was able to increase its production by a factor of 10, other producing economies recorded far more modest increases.
"Fundamental supply shortages exist, and current demand might be 10 times higher than world production capacity," the authors note.
In the Netherlands, life science company Royal DSM NV and VDL, an international industrial family business comprising 106 operating companies across 20 countries, recognized that there was a need for a reliable, high-quality supply chain both in the Netherlands and in Western Europe. With the region's dependency on PPE supplies from abroad, the current shortages would not easily be resolved, they realized.
As Pieter Wolters, vice president of DSM and responsible for the company's startup investments, said: "The global demand for medical face masks and critical filter material exceeds the limited supply. The need for reliable and high-quality supply chains is more urgent than ever."
The two companies felt they had a responsibility to mount a response to the crisis and on Sept. 4 announced what that response would entail: The launch of a 50-50 joint venture to establish production of medical face masks and the first permanent production of critical face mask components in the Netherlands.
The past months have shown that "you can't tell a pandemic what to do," van der Leegte said. "This means we owe it to ourselves to create certainties close to home."
The new joint venture, called Dutch PPE Solutions and based in Helmond, near Eindhoven, will help to meet the urgent need to diversify the global production and supply chains of personal protective equipment at scale by reducing dependency on a small number of international sources.
According to André van der Elsen and Miel Timmers, the communication officers at DSM and VDL Groep, respectively, the establishment of the first permanent production facility of critical filter material in the Netherlands will provide greater resilience to possible future surges in demand for face masks and the underlying materials.
"The JV will manufacture meltblown PP for millions of face masks per month; face mask production will be scaled up based on market orders and demand expectations," they said.
"The health care industry will be prioritized initially, and production will eventually be extended to support professionals in other sectors such as public transport, the industry, schools and educational institutes, and private companies across Europe."
The JV partners are investing several million euros in the purchase of manufacturing equipment and the construction of new manufacturing facilities to produce meltblown polypropylene, the critical nonwoven material middle layer in medical face masks that filters viruses, and to produce medical masks.
"Our JV has invested heavily in machines that produce face masks and meltblown PP, so that will be our key market the start with," said van der Elsen and Timmers.
As the name implies, nonwoven fabrics are created not by weaving or knitting yearn together, but by mechanically, thermally or chemically binding material made from separate fibres of molten polymers into a fleece fabric.
The polypropylene is first melted and then extruded through the die nosepiece, where they are hit by a high-velocity heated airstream, forming microfibers. As they cool, these microfibers are randomly deposited on a collector. The cohesion between the fibres is often enough to form a fabric, with no additional bonding needed.
The random orientation of the fibres, their density and tiny diameter result in a highly efficient filter material, although in medical masks it must undergo further treatment to become an electret. The electrostatic charging of the fibres helps to trap aerosolized virus particles via electrostatic attraction in the webbed filter material.
The new meltblown polypropylene plant being built in Geleen by Dutch PPE Solutions is expected to be fully operational in April 2021.
Initial production of face masks will begin in Helmond in November 2020. The first machine for producing the masks is currently being tested by the company.
Reliability and sustainability
The new joint venture Dutch PPE Solutions is putting the swift, reliable and stable manufacturing of urgently needed, responsibly priced medical face masks at the core of its strategy, said van der Elsen and Timmers. At the same time, the company will be exploring innovative and sustainable ways to reduce the growing waste mountain of used face masks — for example, through the use of circular materials.
"After the first-generation face masks, we will be looking into the next generation with, for example, more recyclability, circularity and reusability," they emphasized.
They added that renewable electricity and energy would be used where available and that the joint venture would be looking to establish a local supply chain where possible.
This article first appeared in the special 'Rapid Responders' edition of our sister publication, Plastics News