Sports Brands Pivot to Produce Protective Gear for Health Workers

Athletic-gear manufacturers swap athletic equipment for medical supplies to aid in the COVID-19 pandemic. By retooling their operations and reprogramming equipment, manufacturers are making much-needed supplies to protect front-line healthcare employees.


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With the limited medical supplies available to hospitals, athletic companies have been transforming factories into production lines for medical equipment. The equipment and materials that would have been used to create athletic gear, such as apparel and shoes, are instead being used to make medical masks, gowns, and other personal protection equipment (PPE) for those at the front lines of the COVID-19 battle. With a few IoT tweaks, these companies have shifted from sports gear to medical gear. 

Nike brought together its innovation teams and manufacturing groups with a new product in mind: full-face shields. The company created a nine-step process to produce the shields from materials originally destined for apparel and Nike Air shoes. 

Using existing technology that allows for the extrusion of polyurethane film, Nike is using thermoplastic polyurethane to create veils for face shields. The foam band is made from repurposed collar padding, and clothing cords are used as straps to fit the mask. Nike also is making powered, air-purifying respirator (PAPR) lenses, which are welded to the face shields.

New Balance is producing general-use face masks in two of its five US factories for healthcare workers at Massachusetts General Hospital and other Boston hospitals, using materials and machinery already on hand. New Balance has focused on the filtration and the fit of the masks, prompting them to experiment with different prototypes. With the help of local hospitals and MIT, New Balance created a mask made of a five-ply laminated fabric with elastic shoelaces as the adjustable straps.

The masks are created by repurposing New Balance’s domestically sourced sneaker materials and existing equipment. The process starts with the company’s automated computer-controlled cutter, which uses a computerized pattern to cut the fabric into pieces for the masks. Then a no-sew material is bonded to the mask’s five layers of fabric using a heat press. Lastly, elastic shoelaces are added. Because the company was able to reprogram its existing machinery to make masks in place of shoes, the process is extremely efficient. Each mask requires less than a minute of assembly and labor time. 

Take Me Out To the… Hospital

If you’re missing Opening Day, head to the hospital. The classic pinstripe pattern of Major League Baseball jerseys will now be seen on single-use medical masks and gowns. Online retailer Fanatics, which produces jerseys for MLB teams, is sewing the medical gear from the yards of jersey fabric previously earmarked for Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees uniforms. 

Fanatics was able to use its abundance of existing material and production equipment and is splitting the estimated $3 million cost with MLB. Initially considered a non-essential business, the Easton, PA-based company reopened its 360,000 square foot factory with the goal of producing one million medical masks and gowns to be donated to local hospitals. If the medical masks are still in short supply after reaching that goal, Fanatics plans to include other team fabrics and deliver to other areas.

IoT is a Game Changer

Other companies are recalibrating their production lines to produce medical equipment for hospitals as well. Under Armour has converted an unused section of its Lighthouse innovation hub into a factory producing one-piece, no-sew medical masks. Using the facility’s existing high-speed knife cutter, which can carve about 100 pieces of fabric at once, Under Armour can produce about 100,000 folded “origami” masks a week. The company is also exploring 3D printing options for N95 and N80 masks. 

Adidas, in conjunction with technology company Carbon, has shifted from producing 3D printed footwear to 3D printed face shields after reprogramming its technology. Bauer, and its partner Cascade Maverick, repurposed its hockey and lacrosse manufacturing facilities to create plastic and anti-fogging face shields out of materials they use for helmets and protective gear. 

This big-name roster of companies are all supporting hospitals with their donations of medical masks, gowns, and face-shields. IoT allows them to make swift automation changes to their manufacturing operations and will (hopefully soon) help us all get a win in the fight against infection. 

  • See how Fanatics is changing manufacturing in response to the pandemic, follow Founder and Executive Chairman Michael Rubin on Twitter.



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