This time last year Global Safety First LLC was in the midst of a partnership with Avery Dennison to produce and distribute self-adhesive, NIOSH-certified N95 masks, which both companies referred to as "respirators." It was in direct response to the urgent need for personal protective equipment, particularly for health care workers and first responders.
After producing millions of the respirators, both companies now agree that the supply easily outpaces demand, particularly given the high number of lower-quality masks that have flooded the marketplace since March 2020. The initial demand spurred by the Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for N95 masks (May 2020) that ramped up supply from providers around the world, requiring further scrutiny by regulatory agencies such as NIOSH and the FDA.
It's one of the lessons learned from COVID-19 for manufacturers: strategizing a balance for best-in-class production with variable demand and the need for customer education about quality.
"In a short amount of time last year there were just a lot of KN95 and other mask players that jumped in," said John Schwind, CEO of Sea Girt, N.J.-based Global Safety First, which produces its ReadiMask Self-Adhesive NIOSH-Certified N95 face mask. These respirators are made with electrostatic particle filtration properties that make them more breathable. They adhere gently to the face with double-coated, skin-friendly adhesive.
"[Our product] is the only one that forms a seal that we know of and seals everything so well that your glasses don't fog up," Schwind said.
N95 masks are made with a variety of materials including polypropylene.
ReadiMask production increased dramatically when it began working with Avery Dennison Medical as a subcontractor. The respirator was produced by GSF for such industries as manufacturing, retail and even consumer use. It forms an air-tight seal, providing what Schwind called maximum protection, while allowing filtration during inhalation and exhalation. It weighs practically nothing.
Despite these benefits that GSF promoted, market penetration has been challenging, based on the large supply of other products that have dubious quality claims at lower price points that can be attractive to retailers.
"There was a period last year where manufacturers in foreign countries like China were hanging on to the supply of their products," Schwind said.
Initially it created a huge shortage. However, by 2021, there was an "overabundance of supply," helped by the Emergency Use Authorization and the ramping up of capacity by manufacturers, he added.
Health care is an industry that normally is heavily regulated, which means it can take a significant amount of time for a new product to receive approval for product development, manufacturing and commercialization. While health care system buyers understand the need for PPE, it can be hard for them to recognize differences in product quality compared to the N95 or K95 masks they have been purchasing for many years.
Schwind has found similar challenges on the consumer side, with large retailers like Home Depot or Lowe's. GSF is working with other players in the industrial market along with representatives from Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for potential business.
"It's difficult because, while we have been successful at getting product samples out, we can't cover the entire market with samples," Schwind said. "You can't [put into context] the quality and comfort until you try it on, so educating prospects remains difficult."
As the pandemic's macro impact wanes slightly, there is an acceptance from both companies that there may be annual COVID-19 spikes in various "hot spots" in the U.S. and around the world, so there may be a demand for ReadiMask production on a short-term basis.
However, lower prices for such masks with unpredictable demand could make it a difficult business decision for GSF and subcontractors like Avery Dennison in the months ahead.
Even if a manufacturer is successful in educating health care or non-health care customers about the differences in product quality, the politicization of masks and the sheer quantity of options makes it a difficult business decision.
"[In a retail setting], it's like the chips or snack aisle at the grocery store," Schwind said. "There are so many it is hard to know what is best."
Ramp up and ramp down is never easy as there are human, machine and raw material needs that have to be carefully assessed before major production decisions are made, Schwind said. GSF is prepared to address production based on demand and market conditions.