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Why China’s ‘Sneaker City’ Is Making Face Masks Instead of Footwear

The rise of the coronavirus epidemic has sent shockwaves through both the Chinese and global economy—but the story behind how China’s “sneaker city” came to produce around one million face masks a day in just 10 days shows how suppliers have come together to fight back against the outbreak.

The city of Putian in China’s Fujian Province is internationally known as the nation’s sneaker manufacturing capital, with footwear factories regularly supplying brands like Nike and Adidas.

But recently, facilities like the Putian Shuanglian Shoes Co. plant have begun producing face masks at the behest of the local government, according to a report published by Shanghai Daily publication, Shine, which quoted the Xinhua News Agency.

“We have almost 3 million registered residents, considering the upcoming work and school resumption, we need 1.5 million masks for use daily,” Putian Mayor Li Jianhui told Xinhua.

Lacking local face mask manufacturing companies, Li and his administration reached out to the Putian Footwear Association and several local diaper and shoe factories, creating a “mask research institute” from a working group of local industry leaders.

“We decided to get back on our own feet,” Li said.

Although masks are relatively easy to make compared to footwear and even diapers, the group quickly found that a shortage of materials and equipment hindered their ability to produce a sufficient number of masks at national standards.

However, the institute was able to combine its resources in such a way that production could be spread out among its various members, with each factory leveraging its strengths to produce a face-mask component.

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Face masks are made in three layers. Between the non-woven fabric outer and inner layers, a meltblown filter of non-woven material in the middle keeps dust and germs away from the wearer. These materials are widely used in diapers and two local diaper manufacturers were able to retrofit their production lines to produce the inner component.

By Feb. 7, local firm Fujian New Yifa Group,was producing 130 layers per minute, according to a Xinhua reporter.

However, the nose pieces and ear loops that keep a face mask in place needed to be produced by factories better suited to the task. That’s where local footwear companies came in.

“We found the most difficult part is fusion techniques while the sewing, hot melt and welding machines and UV sterilization system at shoemaking firms would come in handy,” Putian Footwear Association president Chen Wenbiao said.

The institute requested that any local companies with more than 50 automatic sewing machines, 20 welding machines, a UV sterilization system and 100 workers apply for the project. Of the 20 firms that applied, 10 were selected and each was tasked with producing 200,000 masks a day.

By early February, the first masks produced by the institute’s makeshift production center were ready to seek approval by the central government, which rejected the inaugural batch for failing to meet quality standards.

“We didn’t give up,” Zhang Zhihong of the Putian Industry and Information Technology Bureau told Xinhua. “We improved the production process and fabric material according to the feedback and made new samples on Feb. 6 which proved to meet the national standard.”

By Feb. 8, Putian’s output exceeded one million masks a day and Li’s administration expects local production to eventually exceed two million.