Interior supplier to Rolls-Royce, Porsche is now making masks
Zettl Group’s bread and butter is usually the intricate leather detailing inside a Porsche or Rolls-Royce. Thanks to the new coronavirus, the German car-parts maker’s assembly lines are now churning out face masks instead.
Zettl plans to use automation to make tens of thousands of masks each day, the company said on Monday. It’s just one example of how Germany’s network of parts makers and machinery manufacturers is joining the likes of France’s Chanel and Italy’s Armani in racing to fill the global demand for gear to protect against the virus’s spread.
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Face masks are increasingly precious as the number of global coronavirus infections soars above 800,000, with some U.S. hospitals running so low on supply that doctors are reusing disposable masks for days at a time. In Germany, reserves of the high-quality version needed by medical staff are so exhausted that Chancellor Angela Merkel has phoned around to search for more, said Markus Soeder, premier of the hard-hit southern state of Bavaria.
“The machines that make these masks in China all come from Germany," Soeder said on Tuesday. “So now what we need to do is switch to the production that we urgently need in our own country."
There are signs that mask-wearing is becoming more widespread in the general public as well despite calls from the World Health Organization to prioritize their use for health workers. The city of Jena in eastern Germany said Monday it would require people to wear masks when going shopping or using public transport starting next week, becoming the first city in the country to introduce such a policy. On Tuesday, the hashtag #Maskenpflicht (“mask requirement") was trending on Twitter in Germany. Meanwhile, neighboring Austria started requiring residents this week to wear masks while doing their grocery shopping.
In France, fashion industry companies are on track to make some 480,000 masks per day, while existing French producers of surgical masks ramp up toward 40 million units in April, Deputy Economy Minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher said. The German government secured 20 million masks in the past week, Health Minister Jens Spahn said on Tuesday.
“We want to improve that," Spahn said. “We are working on quickly getting an agreement with industry."
Meanwhile, German producer Draegerwerk AG & Co KGaA announced a contract on Tuesday to produce tens of millions of the sophisticated N95-class filter masks that doctors and nurses use in hospitals for the U.S. government. Draegerwerk will open a site in the U.S. to make the masks.
For companies from the German Mittelstand -- the roughly 250,000 small-and medium-sized firms that form the backbone of Europe’s largest economy -- making masks is a chance to use machinery that would otherwise have stood idle as social distancing measures to stop the virus from spreading also slow the economy. The Mittelstand is uniquely suited to the quick pivot, because many firms are still family-owned and don’t need to clear major production overhauls or strategic about-faces with shareholders.
“We can not only bridge the current economic situation to a certain extent with our work, but also help hospitals," said Matthias Zettl, a management board member at the German parts maker and member of the owning family.
In Lower Saxony, electrical insulation specialist Mueller Ahlhorn has said it contacted the government about financing to buy equipment to make N95 masks. The company could build up a production line for those products in “four to five weeks," it said last week on Twitter.
Other companies are focusing on simpler masks. BeWooden GmbH, which normally markets vegan wallets and wooden bow-ties, teamed up with Mannheim-based sock maker Von Jungfeld to produce 2,500 cotton masks per day and resell thousands more sourced from a network of local tailor’s shops. The masks will help bridge “the next one or two months" after sales of BeWooden’s other products plunged as much as 80% because of the virus, co-founder Henrik Roth said.
Demand is high. German t-shirt producer Trigema GmbH turned to making masks on March 19 and now says it’s back-ordered for private customers until after Easter. It’s churning out its washable and reusable version -- which costs from about 7 euros to 12 euros apiece, depending on the size of the order -- as fast as possible, expecting to produce as many as 120,000 this week, up from almost 100,000 last week, owner Wolfgang Grupp said. It’s welcome business now that the company’s 45 stores, which account for about half of sales, are shuttered because of the virus.
“I agreed to help about five weeks ago without knowing how the situation would develop," Grupp said. “Now, with all my stores closed, I’m happy that my employees are able to do this work."