Facing a sharp decline in demand for textiles following the Covid-19 outbreak, many textile manufacturers have added new production lines to meet the huge demand for face masks and other personal protection equipment (PPE), helping create new supply chains worldwide.


According to the latest market research study by the Polaris Market Research, a global market research and consulting company, the global face mask market is expected to increase in value terms to some US$31.83 billion by 2027, up from US$4.41 billion in 2019. Considering the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) and requirements in most countries of the world, many experts predict that face masks may well become a regular feature of the common outfit worn by people in the future.


The huge face mask demand is driving companies in Asia and elsewhere to diversify their production lines to meet the rising demand.


Many suppliers see North America as an attractive market, both in value and volume terms. Europe, facing a renewed spread of Covid-19, is also expected to generate strong demand for masks.


Logistics companies are also gearing to handle the heavy PPE volumes expected to be shipped across the globe. Port Logistics Group, a major U.S. omnichannel logistics services provider serving a range of apparel brands and retailers, many of whom have braced to meet the PPE shortage, announced its support for a massive face mask distribution effort on behalf of its partnered brands, delivering more than 17 million masks by the end of August.


Port Logistics Group has warehouses and distribution centers near major North American ports.


The Washington, D.C.-based National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO) recently announced that a coalition of American fashion and textile brands, responding to an urgent White House call for medical supplies, joined hands to build a supply chain “virtually overnight [to] fast-track the manufacturing of medical face masks to help hospitals, health care workers and citizens battling the spread of the Covid-19 disease,” as NCTO put it in a statement.


Parkdale Inc., the North Carolina-based yarn spinner, helped lead the effort to build the coalition with Hanesbrands, Fruit of the Loom and six other companies to set up a manufacturing supply chain and begin ramping up mask production.


American Giant, Los Angeles Apparel, AST Sportswear, Sanmar, America Knits, Beverly Knits and Riegel Linen are also part of the coalition.


Companies in Asia, forced by a downturn in demand for traditional textile and apparel products, are finding it lucrative to manufacture masks and protective gowns in their plants.


Ahmed Jahangir, the executive director of Nishat Textile Mills in Karachi, recently told the media that his company has started to ship masks. Indeed, as one Pakistani industry analyst told Asia Cargo News: “Nishat Mills will probably never give up production of masks in the future. Demand for textile masks worldwide will continue even after the pandemic is over,” he predicted. Nishat Mills has received good orders for a wide range of textile masks from U.S. and European buyers.


Pakistan’s garment manufacturers, who reportedly lost between 20% and 35% of their garment business during the pandemic, see good business potential inherent in mask production.


Similarly, textile and garment manufacturers in Bangladesh are also turning to manufacturing masks and protective garments.


Beximco Textiles, operating a plant in Savar, near Dhaka, turned to PPE manufacturing in February. According to chief executive Syed Naved Husain, Beximco exported some 6.5 million medical gowns to U.S. brand Hanes; its PPE exports are expected to touch some US$250 million this year.


Khan Monirul Alam Shuvo, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers’ and Exporters’ Association (BGMEA) spokesperson, told journalists that while there had been some recovery in incoming garment orders after a sharp decline in demand, the volume of orders received for garments was lower than last year’s volume. In June, Bangladesh’s factories were operating at 55 percent of their capacity.


More than 30 factories today produce PPE products in Bangladesh.


Indeed, Fakir Apparels, a Bangladesh apparel-producing company, which has reportedly bagged substantial orders for surgical gowns, has converted five of its factories into PPE-manufacturing plants, employing an additional 400 workers, and expecting to export US$200 million worth this year. Bangladesh experts aver that their country could become a new hub for PPE manufacturing.


India, which had recorded by mid-September the second-highest number of infections worldwide, is racing ahead in the global PPE supplies after, initially, imposing an export ban on such products. The country later relaxed the ban and fixed its export quota at about 5 million units per month. However, an exporter needs to obtain an export license from the government for shipments of such products.


While welcoming the government’s decision, the chairman of the Apparel Export Promotion Council of India (AEPC), A Sakthivel, said the government should also allow export of N95 masks, which are still banned from export.


Nextt Affiliated, a Dallas-based textiles company, supplied more than 35 million pieces of PPE to hospitals, school districts and government agencies across the U.S. through its newly-created division Nextt Shield. Known for its sheets, bedding and towels, Nextt also now produces hand sanitizer gloves, face masks, face shields, etc. It produces isolation gowns at its factory in India and operates a distribution center in Dallas.


Turkey, which has also entered the lucrative business for masks and PPE products, has hit upon a novel idea: It refurbished three ships to produce hundreds of millions of face masks during trans-oceanic sea voyages. The ships cost less than a conventional factory because they were lying idle thanks to the pandemic. Moreover, by placing 100 machines in a ship, productivity is higher than in a factory in terms of time and protection, the proponents of such “floating factories” argue.


A&S Holding, for example, founded a protective gear factory named Global Mask in 28 days and received large orders, including from the U.S., which ordered volumes ranging from 100 to 150 million masks.


Because it would take more than two weeks to manufacture 100 million masks, and another month to ship these to America, the Turkish exporting company created these floating factories which also cut down delivery time considerably. Each ship can offload at least 500 million face masks and 10 million protective suits at ports in North and South America, Turkish sources claim.


Facing the pandemic, Taiwan’s machine-tool industry became innovative and offered machine-tool products for surgical mask manufacturing to meet the strong global demand.


Taiwan’s government had approved by the end of January a proposal to build 60 assembly lines to produce 6 million surgical masks a day, gradually increasing daily production to 10 million.


Building 60 assembly lines in Taiwan, which has a shortage of workers, was a daunting task. But the Taiwan Machine Tool and Accessory Builders’ Association urged its members to cooperate, creating the first part of the “national team” in just five days and helping Taiwan’s PPE manufacturers slash their production time. The 60 production lines, which would normally take four to six months, were set up in just 25 days.


With another 32 mask-production lines established by March 20, increasing the total to 92 production lines, the manufacturers increased their daily production capacity to 13 million masks by early April.


By Manik Mehta

International Correspondent | New York