Food packaging maker Novolex is retooling several of its factories to make medical equipment for health care workers and plans to produce at least 25,000 face shields and 100,000 isolation gowns a week.
The Hartsville, S.C.-based company said in an April 20 news release that it is taking current manufacturing capacity for PET sheet and injection molded fittings at four factories and shifting that into production for personal protective equipment.
More is planned. A company executive said it's working on converting additional factories and hopes to increase medical PPE production substantially, potentially boosting gown manufacturing tenfold.
"We're using facilities originally designed to produce food packaging such as tortilla bags to make protective gowns, and we're adapting muffin containers, reusable cutlery and plates to create face shields," said Galen Killam, the company's senior technology and product manager.
Novolex, which has 61 factories in North America and Europe, said its national transportation and supply chains will allow it to continue the medical production as long as needed. It said many of its plants are already certified to food-grade production, making it easier to adapt them to producing sanitary plastic sheets needed for medical equipment.
The company said it compressed what would normally be a six- to eight-month factory conversion process into three weeks.
"Our facilities are already uniquely equipped to produce food-grade products, so we are thrilled to be able to jump in and use our know-how and engineering expertise to make protective equipment that can really help those on the front lines," said Phil Rozenski, vice president of public affairs.
The company said plants in Brampton, Ontario; Lancaster, Texas; Chelmsford, Mass.; and Yakima, Wash., are making the medical equipment.
Adrienne Tipton, senior vice president of innovation, said the company is converting other Novolex facilities as part of its plan to ramp up.
"This includes bringing new facilities around the country on line to produce PPE to fill demand," she said. The company said it eventually wants to produce between 850,000 and 1 million gowns a week, or up to 4 million a month.
Tipton said the effort involved retooling machines, fast-tracking tool and die work to be able to quickly injection mold headgear and repurposing materials it already had on hand.
It said the face shields are made from PET that would normally make clear cake containers, for example, and the medical gowns were made on machines that typically produce bags for things like birdseed and ice melt products.
"Our talented engineers were able to leverage Novolex's sophisticated manufacturing infrastructure to immediately start producing PPE at the same scale we produce products like plastic utensils and tortilla bags," Tipton said.
The company said PET is an "ideal" alternative for traditional PPE materials given its resistance to chemicals and moisture saturation.
Novolex said the protective gear is being shipped to New Hampshire, California, New York, Texas and Georgia.
The company, which has 10,000 employees worldwide, also said on social media April 14 that it donated plastic sheet to a face shield manufacturing effort being done by Coca-Cola bottlers in Florida. The company said in a statement two of its plants in the U.S. and Canada have donated enough PET sheet to make 400,000 shields, and a factory in Ireland donated PET sheet for face shield production in that country.