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Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, face masks seem to be as precious as gold. But while Germany is a major maker of machines for such masks, it's still struggling to set up its own national production.
In the middle of March, life took a dramatic turn for David Schmelzeisen. His telephone was ringing endlessly because purchasing managers from hospitals in the German county district of Heinsberg kept calling, always asking the same question: "Where can I get face masks?"
Heinsberg, at the time, was one of the first coronavirus hot spots in Germany, and clinic staff called Schmelzeisen because they thought the Institute for Textile Research at RWTH Aachen University where he works had first-hand information about where in Germany stockpiles of face masks existed.
Inundated with requests, Schmelzeisen finally decided to launch an internet website with the aim of bringing supply and demand together by linking requests from hospitals, practitioners and nursing homes with the activities of producers and distributors.
"We've so far been able to organize the supply of 1 million face masks," Schmelzeisen told DW. "The first shipment of more than 50,000 masks went to Heinsberg."
Beware of the scammers
Schmelzeisen's platform need-mask.com primarily caters for the needs of commercial enterprises in the health sector and is not intended to supply face masks to pharmacies or e-commerce retailers like Amazon.
But supply problems are prevalent for both, he says, because the market is in turmoil, with not even health sector buyers being able to say exactly when and how many deliveries arrive.
Machine builder Reifenhäuser in Germany wants to contribute to easing the shortage of face masks in the country
"The prices of face masks have soared almost tenfold, and there are quite a number of fake providers in the market right now," he says.
Schmelzeisen's platform routinely checks all offers on the market to see if they are serious before launching a request. Since hospitals need certified high-protection FFP2 and FFP3 masks, simple face coverings made of cloth and currently offered by many producers are not appropriate for professional use, he says.
Twenty times thinner than hair
There's a huge difference between the various fabrics and textiles used for masks, Schmelzeisen points out. Masks made for medical personnel require a material called melt-blown fabric. It's an extremely fine mesh of synthetic polymer fibers that forms the critical inner filtration layer of a mask, allowing people to breathe while reducing the inflow of possible infectious particles.
"We're talking about fibers where one filament has a diameter 20 times thinner than a human hair, and which need to be woven in 500 layers," says Bernd Reifenhäuser, CEO of German machine builder Reifenhäuser. "Cotton is less dense and has weaker filtering ability," he told DW.
Reifenhäuser, which is based in Troisdorf, Germany, is a major provider of melt-blown machine lines. The fabric itself, however, is largely manufactured in China which meets about 75% of global annual demand.
Due to the global shortage of heavy-duty masks amid the coronavirus pandemic, Reifenhäuser has now launched a pilot production line to manufacture the fabric in Germany. Output has reached 1 million masks daily, even though production is still in its trial phase.
German mask industry in the making?
Reifenhäuser thinks that a ramp-up of melt-blown fabric production is needed to meet growing demand, but adds that Germany is currently lacking the industrial infrastructure to assemble the actual mask.
"German industry has for years focused on building very specialized and complicated machinery. Now we need to take a step back again," he says, suggesting that Germany set up a "strategic production reserve" for such purposes.
Under pressure to overcome the masks shortage in Germany, the government has promised state subsidies covering 30% of investment costs of companies venturing to launch fabric production. The funding will be capped at €10 million ($10.9 million), but includes a purchase guarantee from the government.
But industry groups like the German Chambers for Industry and Commerce (DIHK) have warned against falling into a "protectionist trap" in the race to bring back industries during the current health crisis.
David Schmelzeisen from RWTH Aachen echoes such views, arguing that once the crisis is over, Germany may be "awash with masks."
Made in China
While production lines for melt-blown fabric are complex and cost millions to set up, those for manufacturing ordinary masks for the masses are easier to establish and cost less.
But profit margins on both products are thin, which is why production has moved mainly to China where labor costs are lower than in Europe. Schmelzeisen notes that with mass production of masks costing only a few cents it will be difficult to make a sustainable business here, adding "even more so because [European] populations are normally not used to wearing masks, unlike those in Asia."
Meanwhile, several German firms are trying to switch their production to mask manufacturing.
Mahle, an auto industry supplier, has launched production of filters for FFP3 masks as demand for its air conditioning systems from carmakers has slumped. In a partnership with textiles manufacturer Triumph, the company set up a complete mask production line "within just one week," says Mahle spokesman Rubin Danisch.
The business already included manufacturing prototypes of masks and a steady supply chain for fabric and parts, he told DW. Mahle was aiming to produce 1.5 million masks, he added, although he declined to say if the masks would meet FFP3 standards.
Munich-based premium automaker BMW is also entering the mask-making business, with Chairman of the Management Board Oliver Zipse stating the bold aim of being able to manufacture "several hundred thousand masks per day."
Asked by DW, a BMW spokesperson said however that the masks would primarily be supplied to company workers after the relaunch of car production, and that it was yet unclear if the masks would undergo certification.
Poor countries set to lose out
On the global market for medical face masks, governments from industrialized countries have become big players. The German government is even planning to set up an "air bridge" of Lufthansa planes to make sure crucial supplies from China arrive safely.
After the lockdown in the Chinese city of Wuhan — epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak and a major mask-manufacturing hub — was lifted, exports have resumed.
David Schmelzeisen believes that industrialized countries like Germany and the United States will be able to overcome mask supply bottlenecks in "the foreseeable future."
However, he is concerned about widening shortages in developing countries, including India and those in Africa, where the coronavirus health crisis is only just beginning. Therefore, he's planning to enlarge his need-masks.com platform to include textile industry groups all over the world in their pursuit to protect the most vulnerable.