A shortage of personal protective equipment is endangering health workers worldwide, reported the World Health Organization early March on its online platform. The director called on industry and governments to boost the supply and increase manufacturing by 40 per cent in order to meet the rising global demand, which requires an estimated 89 million medical masks for the fight against COVID-19 each month. Production is being scaled up, but it’s not just the medical supply industry that’s responding to the call. Fashion brands too are reorganizing their ateliers and factories for the fabrication of vital health care supplies. From surgical masks to soaps, luxury houses such as Hermès, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent, as well as high-street brands including COS, Zara and Mango are all producing productive equipment. Giants – and parent companies – LVMH and Kering have made massive donations, while the likes of Dolce & Gabbana and Bulgari are funding medical research. The furniture sector is rapidly following suit. Committed to serve their local healthcare institutions and communities, they’ve quickly adapted their assembly lines for face shields instead of furniture. Especially in countries that depend on overseas production and thus deal with unpredictable delivery times and market manipulation, such initiatives are crucial.
We select five solidary industry leaders that have understood that all too well.
Wilkhahn shields its workforce from the virus
To keep its operations up and running in the safest possible manner, German office furniture manufacturer Wilkhahn is taking matters into its own hands. While a large part of the company’s employees are working from home, the production department is still operating. And even though they do so in staggered shifts, they need protection. Hence why Wilkhahn is manufacturing masks and shields in-house. Workspaces otherwise devoted to upholstery are now used to sew masks using bonded nonwoven fabrics, while the product development team makes face shields with the help of 3D-printing technology. Because the Week of the Environment – where the brand’s next-gen 3D-printed stools and accessories were planned to be presented in June 2020 – is postponed, the printers can now generate protective equipment at full force. Design and development director Michael Englisch and advance development director Carsten Gehner set up the manufacturing of the face shields, which are made of a lignin-based biopolymer that can be recycled organically, ‘virtually overnight’. Although the masks and shields aren’t suitable for healthcare professionals, they help ensure the safety of Wilkhahn’s workforce.
Andreu World supports and safeguards its local community
‘Our reaction to the outbreak has been to respond with solidarity,’ says Jesús Llinares, CEO of Spanish furniture manufacturer Andreu World. ‘We are manufacturing 12,000 masks to distribute to local entities around our Alaquàs factory in the Valencia municipality. These protection materials are intended to be used by volunteers, local bodies, civil servants and people working in health and residential centres. We want to enable them to carry out their work with the least possible risk of contagion.’ Llinares says Andreu World aims to produce the masks, which are made from hydro-repellent and waterproof fabrics, ‘in numbers that meet the needs of local communities’, and will even extend their production to the firm's production center in Eulate (Navarra). The initiative came from within: the brand’s employees ‘wanted to contribute their grain of sand and help protect the closest communities.’
Nagami Design 3D-prints protective equipment
Located in Spain, one of Europe’s hardest hit countries, Nagami Design has put its furniture production on hold to supply the hospital in their hometown Ávila with 3D-printed protective shields. Using a robotic extrusion technology, the company can print 500 masks a day – one every five minutes. ‘3D printing has emerged as the ultimate tool for local manufacturing, reducing the production chain to the bare minimum,’ say Nagami Design’s founders. ‘With the COVID-19 emergency this technology provides an opportunity to efficiently produce affordable tools, which are now essential to help save lives. This is indisputably the most important challenge we have faced as designers and makers, but also the best use of design intuition and technology,’ they continue. The company is planning to expand its efforts and use their digital manufacturing tools to aid other regions such as Madrid and La Rioja. Inquiries from other countries, such as the USA, Italy, France, UAE, India, UK and Denmark, are already streaming in.
Natuzzi converts an entire production line
Inside the Ginosa plant of Italian brand Natuzzi, workstations normally used for the cutting and sewing of leather upholstery are now dedicated to the production of certified surgical masks. It only took the company three weeks to create a production line that complies with all the regulations set by the Istituto Superiore di Sanità (Italy’s National Health Institute). Safety devices required to reduce contamination were installed and a special machine for the final sanitation of the face masks has been added to the existing production line. Several thousand masks are produced each day and donated to local hospitals, the Civil Protection Department and the police.
Sancal joins neighbouring companies in PPE manufacturing
In a joint effort to increase the availability of personal protective equipment, 40 companies in Yecla, a municipality in eastern Spain, have dedicated their sites to the manufacturing of face masks, gowns and shoe coverings. Furniture brand Sancal is part of this local initiative, which is promoted by the local technological institute (CETEM) and the district hospital. After initially closing their factory, the brand reopened to start the production of face masks with the help of volunteers from their sewing and cutting departments.