Back in June, the SPESA team had a conversation with Frank Henderson, CEO of Henderson Sewing Machine Co., about the current state of the industry amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and what it means for manufacturing – both domestically and globally.
First, tell us about your company and what makes it unique.
FH: Henderson Sewing was established in 1968 and is a third-generation textile and sewn products supplier of equipment technology, such as robotic integration into sewing and joining fabrics. Over the last 50+ years, the company has distributed roughly 560 different vendor products for textile and textile sewn products manufacturing.
One thing that makes us unique is that everybody who works for Henderson Sewing has been in the industry for many years. We have a staff of 30, for instance. And 17 of those 30 staff members have worked together for more than 25 years. This experience means that our people understand the technology and could quickly pivot production to address the needs in the marketplace as it relates to personal protective equipment (PPE).
For us it is about producing something with as few steps as possible. We as a company have been able to integrate technology into standard products that automates the supply chain as much as possible. Our mask machines come from China because they can produce them much cheaper. But once they arrive, we customize integration into those products to make them fit our marketplace here.
At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, you mentioned that it was important for you to be a conduit of information. Can you talk about that role and why it is important?
FH: It is a very important role.
I’ll take a step back to the early 1970s when I finished Auburn University in Textile Engineering. After graduation, I worked for Amoco Fabrics & Fibers Company (now Propex Fabrics) in the plastics and fiber industry. In that job we extruded thin film from pelletized polypropylene almost exactly the same way as spun bonding and melt blowing today. The technology in those years was in its infancy, but it provided me with an understanding of how something, like a fabric, is processed.
Understanding these processes is key for something like the manufacturing of PPE. Just this morning, I had four calls with customers who did not understand how to utilize nonwoven fabrics in the manufacturing of PPE. I’ve had hundreds of calls over the last six weeks about the same topic.
Questions I get include: What does ultrasonically sealing mean? Or what does it mean to bond fabric together? How does that differ from sewing? Beyond that, what are level 1, 2, 3, 4 masks and gowns? Where can you get these items certified? And what does N95 mean and why should I want to make those masks specifically? What do the filtration levels mean? These are just a few examples of what people are asking right now. They don’t have the answers because they have limited exposure to PPE production. That’s where I can help and be that conduit of information.
Do you think the lack of knowledge in PPE production is because it hasn’t been produced in the U.S.? Or is there a missing link in the production process?
FH: I think it’s both. There hasn’t been a lot of PPE manufacturing in the U.S. which thus results in limited exposure. In addition to that, there has been a disconnect in the supply chain, between manufacturers of yarn, manufacturers of fabric, manufacturers of cut and sew goods, etc. As devastating as the Covid-19 pandemic has been, it has uncovered new opportunities for collaboration. We’re seeing this between organizations like NCTO, SEAMS, SPESA, the Nonwovens Institute, IFAI, and more. I haven’t witnessed collaboration like this in 30+ years.
The topic of essential workers has come up a lot over the past several months, especially as people are sheltering in place and companies are shutting down. You made a strong argument that equipment providers are essential. In addition to the information you’ve already shared, why do you think that equipment providers should be labeled as essential and what role do the suppliers play in the rush to make PPE in the U.S.?
FH: All first responders – whether that’s doctors, nurses, medical professionals, or others – need face shields, face masks, and gowns to do their jobs and prevent the spread of Covid-19. The production of these items right now is just as important to our national security as armor, guns, airplanes, military uniforms, and many other things classified as essential by the government.
It’s important to look at the entire supply chain when thinking of the rush to make PPE in the U.S. We’ve had to import so many different items to produce PPE domestically. If we had a vertical supply chain to support that production, we could have done everything here in the U.S. and had the capacity to ramp up production more quickly given the situation.
We recently spoke with Kirby Best from OnPoint Manufacturing about its quick pivot to produce PPE. He said that having automation is what made it so easy to switch production. As the known “King of Automated Sewing Machines,” can you explain why automation is so important during a crisis like this?
FH: We in the textile and sewn products industry need a completely vertically-integrated digital supply chain, and we don’t have that yet. A digital supply chain would allow you to see every link in the supply chain – from the cut and sew facilities all the way to distribution. A digital system also knows the capabilities of each piece of equipment and what it can and cannot produce.
Take OnPoint Manufacturing as an example. At one moment, an operator could be creating a woman’s dress. And the next moment, they could be creating a medical gown. Now compare that to a non-digital supply chain, where you would be required to go to each individual operator with printed instructions on how to manufacture something different. That process takes a lot more time.
Another thing is consistency. Right now we’re working with Black Swan Textiles on a camera system that looks at a piece of fabric and can tell you what the recipe is to make that fabric. That means the fabric can be created and replicated anywhere in the world and it is going to be the exact same no matter where you go. It’s guaranteed consistency.
How has Covid-19 impacted the industry? And how has it changed the way you work? What kind of long-term effects do you anticipate for your business, the industry, and the supply chain?
FH: In my life, there has never been a situation that has closed the entire country. The shutdowns, due to Covid-19, have been detrimental to U.S. businesses and I fear many of those businesses will not survive.
From a supply chain perspective, the pandemic has revealed the significant dependence the world has on China as a manufacturing base, beyond just PPE production. We have outsourced most of the manufacturing of products from America, polluting the world with cheap labor and importing cheap products from across the world.
We have dismantled the manufacturing base for textiles and sewn products especially. As Covid-19 spread, there was a significant shortage of nonwoven fabrics which are normally utilized to manufacture masks or gowns for PPE. Those products were predominantly being imported into the U.S. – about 98 percent of them. You also have players in China, for instance, who stopped the flow of masks and other PPE from leaving the country. In December 2019 and January 2020, it bought up all of the masks and gowns globally and profited from that. Today, it’s very difficult to get those masks out of China. If those products were manufactured here, we would not have that problem.
As Americans, we need to be able to control our own destiny by becoming the manufacturing epicenter that we used to be. We’ve talked a lot about PPE, but the same thing goes for medications and so many other items that the U.S. used to manufacture but has since moved elsewhere, simply because of a lower price. This is something I’ve thought about a lot over the last 30 years. The U.S. needs to be able to produce essential products to help this country remain a manufacturing and technology leader.
On June 14, 2020, Mr. Henderson spoke on the final webinar in the IFAI/NC State University Webinar Series about constructing and manufacturing PPE. You can check out the full series and webinar videos here.