As a manufacturer of high-performance workwear, Ministry of Supply normally produces clothing using sophisticated technologies, but with the outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus it has turned its attention and 3D printing capabilities to something new: face masks.

A global shortage of high-quality personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical professionals is a pressing issue, with the US struggling to manufacture anywhere near enough face masks, in particular the top-tier N95 versions required for front-line care.

In an effort to combat the problem, many organisations and individuals have come together to produce masks of various filtration levels, and among them is US-based clothing manufacturer Ministry of Supply.

Creating high-tech, highly engineered clothing, Ministry of Supply’s garments are born out of a deep focus on science and technology, with shirts made using materials originally developed for the Apollo space programme among its range. It has also turned 3D printing technology to clothing manufacture, with its 3D Print-Knit process used to create seamless blazars.

Now, however, that technology is being turned to face masks, under the company’s Covid-19 Mask Initiative.

“Right now, masks are in high demand and regular mask manufacturers are at capacity. We were founded out of MIT and our brand mission is to use science to make clothing better,” Gihan Amarasiriwardena, co-founder, president and CEO of Ministry Supply, tells Verdict.

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“With the need for PPE so high, we turned our attention to designing a mask that we could produce today for front-line workers.”

3D printing medical-grade face masks to support the coronavirus efforts

Under the initiative, Ministry of Supply is producing its own Maskº design for healthcare professionals to help with the coronavirus crisis. It will also procure standard surgical face masks, and the much sought-after N95 respirators, which have a built-in microfiltration system.

“As a performance apparel company that uses advanced 3D knitting technology to produce garments, Ministry of Supply is well-versed in churning out technical apparel without compromising quality for efficiency,” says Amarasiriwardena.

“We wanted to harness the materials and machines we already have on hand to produce masks that front-line workers can gain access to right now as an alternative when other, certified surgical masks or N95 respirators are no longer available.”

The masks are being manufactured using the company’s 3D Print-Knit technology, transitioning away from the usual 3D printing of blazers to help combat the coronavirus crisis. And according to Amarasiriwardena, this change of end product has been relatively easy to achieve.

“Our masks are 3D-knit with Shima Seiki knitting machines at our US-based manufacturing locations,” he says.

“We typically make sweaters with this machine, but our agile supply chain allows us to adjust and scale up production to address changing demand. In a normal scenario, we might adjust production if one style is selling faster than another, but in this scenario, we pivoted manufacturing to produce masks.”

However, there are notable differences in the products that did require changes to the manufacturing process.

“The main hurdle was designing a new mask that could be knit on these machines. N95 and surgical masks are not knit. We rapidly prototyped and tested a new design in partnership with MakerHealth, Self Assembly Lab and medical professionals.”

Support from the community: Funding the Covid-19 Mask Initiative

As part of the Covid-19 Mask Initiative, Ministry of Supply is donating an initial 5,000 masks to the Boston Medical Center, which will help front-line medical professionals safely treat patients suffering from the coronavirus.

However, it is calling on its community of customers and supporters, which it has long cultivated a strong relationship with, to provide further assistance. 20% of all sales will go towards the production of further masks, and the company is also encouraging further direct donations to support the project.

“Our community is part of our mask initiative,” says Amarasiriwardena. “In three days, we had over $15,000 in donations from our community.”

It’s community efforts also extend beyond masks. The company has started a series on its blog entitled The Home Work, which provides support and guidance for its customers transitioning to home working.

“These are regular updates on our blog about us, but more importantly with tips and tricks and content for working from home. For example, productivity apps that our team is using, work from home outfits for staying comfortable, etc.”

Ministry of Supply and the coronavirus: Changing work practices

Inside Ministry of Supply itself, the coronavirus has also prompted significant change.

“The health and safety of our team and the employees at our retail stores and partner facilities is our top priority. We have closed all of our retail stores until further notice and our corporate team is working remotely,” says Amarasiriwardena.

“With respect to those involved in mask production, the benefit of 3D Print -Knit is that our partner facilities can operate a number of machines 24/7 with fewer operators working in shifts. Scale is driven by machines rather than number of operators, which allows them to reduce overlap between operators and respect social distancing guidelines.”

For those in the Ministry of Supply corporate team, working from home amid the coronavirus crisis has been aided by a supportive structure.

“We’ve been using video calls liberally, but in particular for our 15-minute office-wide stand-up meeting. This allows us to start the day as a team and commit goals,” he explains.

“We also use a daily Slack sign-off where we publish our High/Low/Ha moments of the day as a way of creating punctuation in the evening.”

This has been supported by a range of technology products selected for the ability to enhance productivity while employees are working from home.

“We’ve been using Divvy, a window manager for your Mac that makes it easy to manage multiple apps on screens of any size. It’s useful if you’re used to working on a large display but currently stuck working from a laptop,” says Amarasiriwardena.

“Another favourite is Time Boxing, which transforms your to-do list into calendar events to help keep you accountable for getting things done.”

Looking to the future?

Having transitioned so rapidly in response to the coronavirus outbreak, Ministry of Supply is currently in a reactive phase, ready to respond to whatever comes next.

But does Amarasiriwardena the changes the company is making now becoming long-term practices for the company? At this stage, it is too soon to tell.

“We’re living in an unprecedented time. All companies are making decisions day by day based on new information,” he says.

“While we can’t say what work will look like six months from now, we can imagine that after we get through this challenging time, we will come out the other side with new ways of working that could continue. We’re learning every day – only time will tell.”

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