With games paused, sports companies shift to making medical supplies

By: New York Times |

Published: April 8, 2020 1:39:18 pm

In Lawrence, Mass., the New Balance athletic shoe company is making face masks for healthcare workers after consulting with local physicians and experts at Harvard.

At a pub in London last month, shortly before Britain ordered its citizens to stay home, a small group of life savers shared drinks. It included Rebecca Shipley, a professor of health care engineering at University College London, her UCL colleague, Tim Baker, a former race car engineer, and some intensive care unit physicians.

On the agenda that night was a discussion to devise methods of handling the deluge of patients infected by COVID-19. The doctors said that the most critical items needed were mechanical ventilators and continuous positive airway pressure machines, or CPAPs.

Baker instantly knew where to turn. In another life he had designed engines for the Jordan Racing team (now Racing Point), a team in Formula One racing. He knew that Formula One teams trained in shaving milliseconds off their race times are capable of producing extremely high-quality machinery in a remarkably short span.

The next day, March 25, Baker met with two engineers from Mercedes-AMG Petronas, the leading Formula One team, based in the British Midlands. They had lunch, then worked through the night on a new design for CPAP machines that could be produced rapidly.

Within 100 hours of the initial pub meeting they had a prototype in hand, and within 10 days they had first regulatory approval from the British government to begin production.

“We are approaching 200 already in circulation,” Baker said in a telephone interview from London, “and we have the go-ahead to produce 300 a day for a week and then 1,000 every day.”

COVID-19 can cause severe breathing difficulty in its worst cases, but the CPAP machines could help keep people off the ventilators, which are in short supply.

Like Mercedes, other Formula One teams are working long hours to accelerate the production of much-needed ventilators, and across athletics many sporting goods manufacturers are repurposing their factory floors and lending their equipment, material and know-how in a widening team effort to fight COVID-19.

“Our company culture is an athletic mindset,” said Ed Kinnaly, the chief executive of Bauer hockey equipment, which is making face shields for medical personnel. “Our employees viewed this challenge of beating this virus like beating a competitor.”

Bauer, and its sister companies Cascade and Maverik, are based in Liverpool, New York and in Blainville, Quebec. Their factories normally produce Bauer’s hockey skates, helmets and face shields as well as lacrosse equipment. But now they are turning out larger plastic face shields, similar to welding masks, to be used by hospital workers as extra protection against splatter that could contain the contagion.

Kinnaly said one of his engineers approached him last month with the idea. A design was created, the machinery adjusted and soon after production was underway. The company began by making about 3,000 units per week at each location and, as the workforce grows more familiar with the process, Kinnaly hopes to ramp up production to 70,000 per week by the end of April.

They are not alone. In Lawrence, Massachusetts, the New Balance athletic shoe company is making cloth face masks for doctors, nurses and hospital staff. Just outside Oxford, England, the ROKiT Williams Racing team has joined with several other Formula One teams to produce ventilators, and in Easton, Pennsylvania, Fanatics, a company that normally makes baseball uniforms, is using that fabric — pinstripes and all — to manufacture masks and gowns. Last week, the New England Patriots sent one of their team jets to China to bring back 1.2 million of the desperately needed N95 protective masks, while many other sporting goods companies and teams also contribute to the effort.

And it is not just sports. Several other industries, including fashion houses like Prada, Gucci and Eddie Bauer, and perfumeries like Dior and Givenchy, shifted their factory production toward medical supplies and hand sanitizer for the battle against the coronavirus.

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