Teamwork makes the dream work: Automation, collaboration increase local mask production

When the Ohio Manufacturing Alliance formed last April in an attempt to bring state manufacturers together to increase production of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and meet growing demand, the Manufacturing and Growth Network (MAGNET) jumped into action.


MAGNET president and CEO Ethan Karp says many Ohio companies, like Stitches USA, a flag maker in Walnut Creek, Ohio and Cleveland startup Buckeye Mask Company, pivoted and retooled their businesses early-on to make masks and other PPE.


Buckeye Mask Company 2-ply cotton face mask.“We ended up producing a million handmade masks for use by all sorts of people in the state and others—and it was fabulous,” says Karp of the statewide effort. “But it was pretty darn clear that many of the vendors we talked to could only produce them at a high cost—at $5 per mask—and that's because they were doing them manually.”


It soon became clear the process had to be automated if producers were going to keep up with COVID-19 demand.


Thanks to some quick thinking and collaboration, the Manufacturing Alliance—led by MAGNET—has been able to use automated sewing machines to increase mask production capabilities from 150,000 per week (about 21,000 a day) to 100,000 per day.


“We knew automation technology [reduces the] difference in cost and people could run these high-tech machines and produce masks faster at the same cost as overseas—but locally and better,” Karp argues. “It overcomes the biggest barrier—we couldn't make them fast enough couldn't make them cheap enough.”


So, MAGNET and the Manufacturing Alliance teamed up with Stitches and Buckeye Mask, with the financial help of Alliance member JobsOhio, to take mask production to the automated level.


The Alliance reached out to Durkopp Adler, a German manufacturer of material handling systems and industrial sewing machines, about supplying local manufacturers with automated sewing machines, and then convinced Buckeye Mask and Stitches to invest in the automation.


“In the middle of the pandemic we started talking to companies, these two companies in particular, about investing in and developing automated custom equipment that would be able to make 100,000 masks a day,” explains Karp.


Both Stitches and Buckeye Mask opted to up the ante in the mask production game by installing a total of 15 Durkopp Adler machines within the two companies).


JobsOhio provided a $1.2 million loan to Stitches for six machines and a $1.8 million loan to and Buckeye Mask for nine machines.


“We knew that if we waited too long the market might be flooded with overseas products or others might go and make the first move,” says Karp of the efforts to facilitate the deal. “And Ohio would have lost the ability—Cleveland would have lost the ability—to be the first people to go out and say, ‘we have this locally-made now.’”


Between the automation and teamwork to make it happen, these two Ohio manufacturers are now capable of producing 100,000 cotton tie-back masks per day.


Karp says the two are currently making about 50,000 a day and he estimates the new automation has created at least 20 jobs between the two companies.


Both companies also received Ohio Retooling and Repurposing Grants through the Ohio Development Services Agency. The program helps small- and medium-sized Ohio manufacturers repurpose existing facilities to make PPE or reshore PPE production to Ohio.


The financial support helped Stitches and Buckeye Mask become the first two companies in the country with the automated capability to produce the cotton masks.


Buckeye Masks and Stiches bought a total of 16 automated sewing machines made by German company Durkopp Adler, capable of to producing 100,000 masks per day.Carla Macklin, Buckeye Mask president, says her company currently has three employees on staff who are currently making about 4,000 masks per day. She says she expects to employ up to 16 people within the next two months.


“When we bring on our new employees, we expect to eventually produce 54,000 masks a day over two shifts,” she says. “That’s probably up to one million masks a month at full capacity, if we get all ramped up.”


Karp says the collaborative efforts between every organization involved in this project will only lead to additional future endeavors that prove that teamwork does, in face, make the Ohio manufacturing dream come true.


“We're already talking to people about what automation opportunities look like to make a cost-competitive [product],” he says, noting that even though Buckeye Mask and Stitches worked together and invested in the same technology for the same purpose, they are also competitors.


“Those companies are now straight up competitors with the same technology,” says Karp. “And they're both innovating how they can differentiate their products and what markets can they go after. But they worked together because they knew what the stakes were, and they were happy to work together to identify what sort of equipment was needed.”


Despite the competition, Karp says this endeavor is a win-win for all partners involved.


“It’s fabulous and it's innovation,” marvels Karp. “My guess is they're both going to find different buyers who want different things and it's all going to be from Ohio.”


And, he says, the teamwork should ultimately lead to a long-term boost for the state.


“My real hope is that these companies will not only supply locally, they’re going to supply out of the state,” says Karp. “So, we've built up the economy, we've put in automation, and we've added jobs.”

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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