A worker at Firetech works on one of the face shields. (Photo: Lauren Collins)

Coronavirus

Surrey businesses re-tool to create PPE for frontline workers

Employers talk about challenges of acquiring raw materials, planning for the long-term

At least a dozen Surrey business have either reworked their businesses, or are in the process of re-tooling, in order to manufacture personal protective equipment for frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But several of these businesses are looking long-term and hoping the local production continues even after the pandemic.

Dan London, the president of Firetech Manufacturing Ltd., is one of those companies hoping this local demand stays.

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Dan London, president of Firetech, holds up one of the protective face shields the company is making during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Lauren Collins)

“I would love it if the health authorities and the people who buy these routinely would allocate a certain percentage of their needs and allow local suppliers to supply it,” he said. “That would allow me, and it wouldn’t take very much for us to keep a viable run of this going, and then if this ever happens again then we already have materials, expertise and everything ready to go so we can ramp it up very quickly.

“We’re never going to compete with China. They’re just too inexpensive… But if we could get a piece of it, the local suppliers could all have a chance to bid on it and then that sort of capacity would always be laden in the community. I would like that and the people I know would really appreciate if that was the case.”

Firetech, which is a textile manufacturer in South Surrey that makes custom bags for first responders, has started making protective face shields. London said with their capacity, they’re able to make 10,000 a week.

For Firetech, he said the business “didn’t put all of our manufacturing into face shields,” adding that they still have some orders coming through for first responders.

“I was literally driving and listening to the radio and Trudeau made a call out to manufacturers who can make PPE,” London told the Now-Leader. “We decided, well, maybe we can. We brainstormed as a group and said, what can we make? We could make all types of equipment, we could make cart covers and body bags and shoe covers and all these things we were thinking. Then we took that information out to the health-care community and said, ‘Look, here are things we can do, what do you need?” And disposable face shields came up.”

At Canada Private Pocket, based in Newton, it was a quick pivot for Shir Hashami and Sharon Tucker to re-tool the business to initially start making face masks.

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Shir Hashami, left, and Sharon Tucker, of Canada Private Pocket, with one of the gowns the company has created for the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Lauren Collins)

The initiative for Surrey businesses to make PPE was in part due to the City of Surrey’s Economic Development Division working with local businesses to help senior levels of government and health authorities access large quantities of PPE supplies, according to a release from the city.

“We are using our material and dintex is the approved, official barrier, protective material that the City of Surrey wants and we have an analysis report to that effect. But we were using that material already for our clothing and so that’s why we jumped in right away to do the masks,” said Tucker, adding that they’d been making masks since March.

“Then they said to us, ‘Can you expand to do that gowns?’ because there’s a great need for them and because we’re already in production and we have the people all ready to go, that’s why were are now re-tooling to do this. We will still, of course, maintain our jacket (line).”

When the Now-Leader spoke with Tucker and Hashami at the end of April, they were waiting to have two gowns tested the following week.

“Once that’s approved, then we are ready to go,” said Tucker, but they are limited on production space in their Newton-area space.

“Once we set up in the new location, we can then produce (more),” she said. “In a bigger space, we can employ so many more people. In this time of need, of jobs, we can help out a lot. We’ve got about eight to 10 sewers that are ready to jump in right away, as soon as we get in a new location.”

But Hashami said while they want to be able to buy more machines, and employ more people, to make PPE, they want this local production and buying to continue long-term.

“We can buy more machines, but not just for one year,” he said.

The same goes for Jude Neale Dias, the CEO of JN Alvit Limited, who said the South Surrey-based company which supplies “high-tech fashion apparel” is in the process of re-tooling the business for technical production of surgical and isolation gowns, Dias said.

Dias said he hopes this new side of the business continues on, even after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Simply from the fact that we have been looking at quite a bit of substantial investment into re-tooling. This kind of machinery that we use is a bit different from sewing machines,” Dias said. “We just want to make sure that once the production lines are up and going with the sophisticated machines that we have some continuity to support the production lines.

“We’ll be retraining workers, locally from here in Surrey, to use ultrasonic machines which are a little more advanced machinery… All of that costs a good bit of money, we just want to make sure that it is sustainable for the next few years in terms of demand.”

Dias said that “everyone knows” the demand is huge because of what happening around the world, “but we just want to ensure that this continues and it doesn’t go back to Asia.”

“I mean, that was one thing that we were worried about when we looked at what happened during the SARS pandemic,” he noted. “There was a surge for domestic production and then after SARS disappeared, it automatically gravitated to the cheapest production in Asia.”

London said Firetech saw first-hand that demand for raw material for PPE.

“We were pretty quick. The first weeks, when they were shutting down and everyone was going into quarantine, it probably took us two weeks till we had designed and built a prototype,” he explained. “The hard part was, can we get the supplies? In particular, it’s the plastic face shield part… It’s called mylar. It’s very thin and it’s got some memory to it and it’s what we call optically clear. You would think that it looks clear but a lot of plastics are not.”

London said they could get the mylar from China, but it would’ve taken 10 weeks to get in.

“We sort of had to scramble and buy it from where we could find it. The hard part was, we’d find it and by the time we got our money together and did a transfer, we’d call back the supplier and they’d go, ‘Oh, sorry, we just sold it. We’ve got some new stuff though and it’s here tomorrow, but it’s from a different supplier and it’s now 40 per cent more.’”

Now Firetech has a “good amount,” but they’re not the only ones still struggling to find raw materials for PPE.

“They’re in high demand all over the world, particularly in the United States right now,” he said. “I get calls almost every day now from American distributors, who want us to supply them.”

However, London said he and his business partner decided to only sell to Canadians “as long as there’s a market.”

“We want to take care of local needs first before we go down (to the U.S.),” he said.



lauren.collins@surreynowleader.com

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