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Here’s How Apparel and Textile Factories Are Adapting to a Virus-Riddled World

On the ground at factories from the U.S. to China, the importance of having the correct thread in stock or prioritizing production orders has often taken a backseat to sanitizing methods and making sure enough masks and gloves are on hand, and that workers are social distancing.

In many cases, the factory workers are manufacturing the same masks they are using to mitigate the contraction of coronavirus, with textile and apparel factories across the U.S. shifting part or all of their production to masks, gowns and other personal protection equipment (PPE).

Edward Gribbin, president of the Americas Apparel Production Network (AAPN), said he has been coordinating the responses to its COVID-19 Sourcing Center message boards and has been speaking with a number of factories about their mitigation efforts.

“Most shut down [a few] weeks ago but have begun to bring workers back slowly to help with PPE shortages,” Gribbin said. “A number have told me they’re spacing operators at every other machine and have all operators wearing masks made there in the factory, and gloves. Two separate factories have said they’re offering workers a premium, like ‘hazard pay,’ because they are concerned about their own health coming to work.”

Gribbin added that in a number of cases, factories in the U.S. are finding it difficult to get workers back that had been laid off because the $600 a week stimulus money coming soon from the federal government is more than the $500 a week they make working.

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Gribbin said every factory that has contacted him or that he has called is making PPE and almost nothing else.

“In addition to apparel factories, we’ve heard from tent and awning makers, furniture manufacturers and an umbrella factory,” he said. “One of the furniture factories is currently making 35,000 isolation gowns for a hospital that contacted us. Everyone has hand sanitizers and is cleaning hard surfaces with disinfectant and most, if not all, operators have masks and gloves. I don’t know what they are doing in break rooms or lunch areas but I’m sure they are encouraging distancing there, as well as on the shop floor.”

Many factories that are up and running are closely following federal guidelines.

“We are adhering to all social distancing rules and regulations identified by the Massachusetts State Department of Health’s COVID-19 guidelines,” added Frank Keohan, senior technology manager at Fall River, Mass.-based Bolger & O’Hearne. “We are also adhering to all COVID-19 guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Steven Jolna, president and CEO of China’s Hunt City denim factory, said workers are wearing masks and gloves, and taking their temperatures before their shifts. Otherwise, the factory that is a key jeans supplier for House of Blue has slowly returned to normal operations, Jolna said.

Footwear production powerhouse Pouyuen Vietnam is working through a temporary suspension in light of social-distancing violations. The manufacturer, which produces more than 300 million pairs annually for the likes of Adidas, Nike and Puma, has been closed down for two days to remedy operations that mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. It’s responded by checking worker temperatures and installing hand-washing sinks in the cafeteria, where new partitions separate segments of the staff so that a single infection has a lesser chance of taking the entire facility out of commission.

The measure is similar to what Davies & Robson, a British supply chain logistics consultancy, told Design Week one of its factory has undertaken: installing a new second entrance to its plant as a means of ensuring virus cases are contained within only one section of the building, minimizing its impact on operations.

Looking beyond immediate mitigation measures, to really get ahead factories need to be thinking about technology, “digitizing processes to safeguard against something like this happening again,” Supply Compass co-founder Flora Davidson said.

“Factories will need to be best in class to win business, so looking to digital tools will help them achieve this,” she added.

Supply Compass, a product development and production management platform, is exploring piloting 3D digital sampling with some of its factories and brands, Davidson said, to see if there are ways to continue design development and sampling even while factories are closed.

“In the future, both brands and manufacturers must be better prepared to navigate uncertainty,” she said. “At Supply Compass, we’re seeing a big increase in inquiries by brands who are using this time in lockdown to explore digital solutions for product development and production and supply chains management.”