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Ohio Automation Alliance Challenges China PPE Production

Two Ohio manufacturers are partnering up to boost domestic personal protective equipment production by leveraging automation and sharing knowledge.

The Ohio Manufacturing Alliance, which is a coalition among the Ohio Manufacturers Association, Ohio Development Services Agency, JobsOhio and the Ohio Hospital Association, together with The Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network (MAGNET), connected Stitches USA and Buckeye Mask to allow both parties to cut costs and improve efficiency in mask production.

Earlier this year, the Ohio Manufacturing Alliance and MAGNET came together to search for candidates in the state to operate automated sewing machines for cotton masks. The two companies chosen for the program are receiving a combined $530,000 from the Ohio PPE Retooling and Reshoring Grant Program and a total $3 million in loans from JobsOhio and to acquire equipment.

“The state of Ohio, between March and May, was actively trying to make PPE locally, and was finding that the demand of going back to work and everybody having masks in the state of Ohio was so much greater than what Ohio could produce that they wanted to invest alongside of companies who are willing to add this to their product line,” said Carla Macklin, president of Buckeye Mask Company.

Stitches USA, a division of Superb Industries, typically produces flags, hazmat suits and equestrian gear at a plant in Sugarcreek, Ohio. Meanwhile, Buckeye Mask is a startup incorporated in May between Macklin and two executives from National Safety Apparel, an 85-year-old firm based in Cleveland that produces workwear, PPE and thermal protective wear.

Both Stitches USA and Buckeye Mask are using an automated sewing machine model that was built specially for this project by a German firm in a matter of months. The machines feature three sewing heads, as well as feeders, pullers and sensors that ensure that the fabric is moving properly. This sewing process is entirely automated, and operators only have to feed new inputs into the machine. It is also adjustable to fit a variety of face sizes. Stitches is running six machines, while Buckeye has nine.

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The Ohio companies are the first to exclusively test out these machines. “They will likely go into the market and try to sell these machines to other manufacturers interested in producing these masks, but as it stands right now Stitches and Buckeye Mask are the only companies who own the equipment at this point,” said Macklin.

While they would usually be competitors, Stitches USA and Buckeye Mask have come together to share other operational efficiencies. From a technical standpoint, the partnership has allowed them to speed up their discoveries, such as determining which fabrics work best with the machine and which adjustments need to be made on the equipment.

The project is able to produce 1.5 million masks per month, and the partnership is said to be competitive with Chinese manufacturing output when at full capacity.

Stitches and Buckeye are also working together to compete on price. This includes bulk ordering raw materials, and jointly bidding on projects to offer customers a better deal. They are making masks for governments and institutions that are buying PPE for their employees or constituents, rather than going direct to consumer.

Macklin has seen pricing for masks change in a short period of time. In the beginning of the pandemic, when masks were in shorter supply, prices were higher. But now additional domestic players are entering the category, and international suppliers are back up and running. “It will likely continue to become a really competitive marketplace—we’re essentially making a commodity, and that will be competitive as the market ages,” she said. “Since it’s so new right now, there’s been advantages to be first to market with a product like ours.”

While there are benefits to sharing information and resources for now, Macklin sees a future where Stitches and Buckeye are “pure competitors” again in part due to pricing pressure.

As fashion takes a renewed look at nearshoring, this model of collaborative price optimization could be adopted by other governments and product categories to support local production.

“Everybody’s talked for decades about how all production of goods have gone offshore, and with an investment by the government into for-profit companies while encouraging competition, it may be a really smart way to leverage state dollars to bring jobs and products back onshore, bringing automation into play to keep costs down and providing a healthy manufacturing environment,” said Macklin.