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Normally, the main floor area at Ntension, a Hermon company that produces tension fabric structures, is dominated by enormous exhibits custom-made for corporate trade shows, museums and sports teams, some of which reach close to the top of the building’s 42-foot ceiling.
Today, however, owner Scott Biehn and his employees at Ntension are focused on the production of just one thing: personal protective equipment — specifically face masks and face shields — for Northern Light Health and its hospitals and medical facilities across Maine.
While Ntension is far from the only company that has pivoted to mask-making during the pandemic — Maine-based L.L. Bean and New Balance also started using their manufacturing facilities to make masks — it stands out as a company that now sees the manufacturing of PPE as a permanent part of its business model.
Right now, the company is producing up to 13,000 masks and 6,500 face shields per day. Once a new piece of equipment arrives next month, Ntension will be able to make more than 100,000 masks per day. It’s a far cry from some of Ntension’s normal projects, like creating five 20-foot tall replicas of the Lombardi trophy out of tension fabric, which were displayed at the pregame show for the first game of the New England Patriots’ 2017-18 season.
“A year ago, I could not have fathomed anything remotely like this happening here,” Biehn said. “I mean, nobody imagined any of this happening with the virus, of course. But to go from what we did before to making PPE … it’s been a pretty incredible transition.”
In January, the outlook for 2020 for Ntension was pretty rosy, with a constant stream of new projects to work on for companies such as Intel, United Healthcare and Nvidia and for professional teams including the Detroit Red Wings and the Boston Bruins. Ntension’s bread and butter has typically been in using fabric stretched over frames to create lightweight, customizable displays for use at trade shows, museums and sports stadiums.
But by March, Ntension’s work had ground to a screeching halt, as trade shows and conferences were axed and entire professional sports seasons were put on hold and eventually canceled as the coronavirus began spreading across the country. One of the first virus “super-spreader” events was a major health care conference in Boston in early March for the biotechnology company Biogen.
“It was really scary,” Biehn said. “We just watched things evaporate.”
Meanwhile, Northern Light Health was busy figuring out how to maintain its supply of PPE. Tim Plossay, Northern Light’s associate vice president of supply chain, said the health care system had begun experiencing disruptions in its PPE supply chain in December due to a massive recall of surgical gowns manufactured by Cardinal Health — but the coronavirus significantly added to the problem.
“We were only getting a percentage of our historical weekly or monthly average, and we were really starting to see a consistent pattern of limited availability,” Plossay said. “We had to start looking for new suppliers, once the FDA said we could start sourcing from alternative manufacturers.”
Northern Light and Ntension already had a professional relationship, as Ntension had created displays for the hospital system’s Champion the Cure Challenge, an annual fundraiser for local cancer research and patient care. Northern Light knew that Ntension not only worked with fabric, but also had the capacity to potentially make masks — and Biehn, in triage mode for his company, had already started considering doing just that.
“It was a kind of mutual contact situation. Scott said, ‘Hey, I can help you,’ And our sourcing team was thinking the same thing,” Plossay said. “And the fact they are just down the street, employing local people, was absolutely part of why we wanted to work with them.”
After several weeks in early March during which Ntension and Northern Light worked with the University of Maine’s Advanced Manufacturing Center and the Manufacturers Association of Maine to run extensive filtration tests on the masks, a final product was ready to be produced. The masks are made of a non-woven fabric, and are grade-one medical masks — not N95 masks, but masks that can be used by all Northern Light employees other than those providing direct care to coronavirus patients or performing surgical procedures.
Initially, the company made around 400 masks per day, and it has been ramping up production ever since. Production has increased to the point where Biehn has had to hire temporary workers.
Last month, the company purchased a new machine that, when it arrives in July, will increase Ntension’s mask-making capacity more than tenfold. The specific machine is one of just five that have been made nationwide, and will make Ntension one of the largest producers of PPE in New England, if not the largest.
“If we run it non-stop, we could make up to 150,000 masks a day,” Biehn said. “We probably won’t run it like that, but it certainly tremendously ups our production.”
In addition to making the investment in the new mask-making machine, Biehn has already submitted a bid to the state of Maine to produce gaiters, another type of PPE that is worn around the neck and over the nose, for distribution among Maine residents at a later date.
“I absolutely see this being something we do from here on out, even as trade shows begin to come back and things begin to return to normal,” Biehn said.
A point of pride for Biehn is the fact that every aspect of production — from the materials to the machines — happens in the U.S. All of Ntension’s fabric suppliers are U.S.-based, so there’s no concern about disruptions in supply from China or other countries. The availability of raw materials has been one of the major contributors to the disruption of the PPE supply chain for hospitals across the country.
“It’s pretty likely that the traditional supply chain will be disrupted for months longer, if not for years,” Plossay said. “Just based on the availability of raw materials, it simply does not meet our daily burn rate, which is between 10,000 and 15,000 masks per day across all our hospitals and clinics. But we’re at a comfortable level with inventory now, between Ntension and our other suppliers.”
For Biehn, his company’s partnership with Northern Light has been a lifeline — not just for him and his 40 employees, but also because it has allowed them to serve Mainers during the pandemic. Ntension has also donated more than 6,000 face masks and 1,400 face shields to fire departments in Hermon, Bangor, Carmel and Glenburn.
“I cannot stress enough how grateful I am to Northern Light for working with us on this,” he said. “And this means that the state of Maine will be taken care of. It eliminates the scarcity of this product for this state. And it’s something that’s going to be a part of our lives for a long time.”