Europe’s scramble for face masks prompts longer term rethink

Business

As countries scramble for face masks to protect their healthcare workers from the coronavirus, German and U.S. manufacturers in Europe are seeing an opportunity more permanently to take on big Asian rivals and bring mask production closer to home.

Treating a single COVID-19 patient requires the daily use of about 15 so-called N95 masks, according to recommendations here by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). With about 700,000 Europeans living with the infection, that translates into a daily need for about 10 million N95 masks, or more than 3.8 billion a year.

Both the heavy duty N95 respirator masks, also known as FFP2, and simpler surgical masks require a fine synthetic meltblown fabric used as filters.

Germany’s family-owned Innovatec GmbH & Co. KG is due in mid-June to boost production of the fabric while U.S. packaging group Berry Global (BERY.N) and Germany’s unlisted Sandler AG, plan to bring new European production lines for the filtering fabric on stream in August.

Unlike many manufacturers that have stepped into medical equipment temporarily to meet unexpected soaring demand, Innovatec said it was looking at long term production, aiming to boost output of meltblown polypropylene to enable additional production of 2 billion masks per year.

Due to Asia’s dominance in production of medical protective gear, masks have not been a focus for Innovatec. Only a few of the company’s production lines can be quickly retooled from their would-be industrial use to make mask-grade material.

“Now many are frantically looking for raw materials,” said Daniel Krumme, Innovatec’s managing director.

Krumme has repurposed two machines, ordered last year to make filter media for industrial clients, to produce mask components. Starting mid-June, they will create 2,000 tonnes in additional annual output capacity.

Bavaria-based Sandler AG said it is investing in a production line to make meltblown for up to 800 million masks per year, though the start of production is not expected before August.

U.S. firm Berry said it would boost meltblown output for N95 masks in Biesheim, France, also from August, serving Europe and adjacent regions. Like Innovatec, Berry is pivoting from serving industrial air filtration customers to medical masks.

Innovatec said it would likely add another 1,000 tonnes of annual meltblown output from November.

U.S. rival Hollingsworth & Vose Co. as well as Germany’s unlisted Freudenberg SE also make meltblown in Europe and have said they are working to boost output of mask materials. Europe-based businesses such as Innovatec and Berry are counting on public-sector commitments to ensure that buying local will outlive the pandemic.

“We do believe countries will re-localize face mask production given the experience gained from this crisis,” said Cedric Ballay, Berry’s General Manager for Health, Hygiene, & Specialties for the region.

European governments are seeking to nurture a domestic mask industry after running into fierce competition with U.S. buyers for shipments from Asia.

Germany has said it will foot 30% of the investment bill for companies that manage to get production of the coveted filter fabric started before year-end.