New Project Making Masks for Motor City, and Acting as Apparel Incubator

Updated: May 5

By Sourcing Journal


This article was published in Sourcing Journal April 7, 2021.

Rock Ventures is partnering with ISAIC, a Detroit-based non-profit that is reskilling area workers, to make face masks with a machine provided by the organization promoting Made in Detroit and selling them to organizations at wholesale pricing.


Rock Ventures started the project as an opportunity to put Detroiters to work while establishing a reliable source of quality personal protective equipment (PPE.)


“ISAIC–Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center–is a national resource for the sewn trades, based in Detroit,” Jen Guarino, president and CEO of ISAIC, said. “We are a nonprofit organization offering Department of Labor-certified apprenticeship training to help rebuild a diminished workforce. We’re training in both traditional sewing skills, as well as advanced technologies to help put people on a career path for the future. As a center of innovation, we are a testing site for emerging technologies and our team has the opportunities to learn those as they are developing.”


The level 3 surgical masks bear a 98 percent filtration rating. Rock Ventures partnered with ISAIC to tap into a ready workforce, and alleviate local and global supply chain dependence on China. They are now producing 15,000 masks per day and building capacity and calibration to exceed 35,000 per day, 175,000 per week and 700,000 per month.

“We launched the training and learning factory in April 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic,” Guarino said. “Rather than manufacturing for apparel clients that were lined up, the team pivoted to making PPE, beginning with isolation gowns for the State of Michigan and Detroit Medical Center and then with the help of the Rock Family of Companies, added three-ply disposable masks.”


Allen Largin, creative and innovation director at Rock Ventures, said with the Rock Family of Companies being the largest employer in Detroit and the largest real estate developer with tenants ranging from hotels, retail, restaurants, and other businesses, “we felt it was crucial to have a constant and high-quality supply of masks to help the Detroit ecosystem get back on its feet and reopen safely.”


“Keeping our team members and partners safe is our top priority, and we have boxes of ISAIC masks in every space in our buildings,” Largin said. “We recognized early on that a donation of masks is a one-time supply, but by donating a machine, we could give Detroit a constant and reliable supply.”


In addition, he noted that ISAIC is not only making masks, but training Detroiters at the same time in an industry that is blossoming.


“One thing that businesses and consumers learned during the pandemic is that we need to have reliable manufacturing close to home,” Guarino said. “There’s a sense of relief knowing they can rely on us…All purchases help support our mission to build an equitable workforce that is paid living wages.

ISAIC Mask Machine

She noted that the masks are made from the same medical grade materials used in surgical settings, but because of cost and timing, the company chose not to seek FDA approval for surgical use.


The machine was purchased through United Sewing Automation in North Carolina. There are 30 people employed at ISAIC, including the factory and the Institute side of the business, which includes curriculum development, education and training, marketing and development, according to Guarino.


The standard boxes cost $25 for a box of 50 masks, but bulk pricing is available on request. Masks made by ISAIC are available directly on the website at isaic.org, and for bulk quantities, prospective clients can contact Jourdan Sims at jsims@isaid.org.


“From our perspective, we were not only responding to the pandemic, but also propping up a workforce development organization that is incubating the apparel manufacturing industry in Detroit,” Largin added. “This machine is another innovative tool in ISAIC’s arsenal to train Detroiters in an industry we’d love to see grow here in a big way. Detroit has always been at the forefront of manufacturing in the United States, and as we saw during the pandemic the United States is too dependent on foreign sources for the products we needed to get through the pandemic. So, to have this in Detroit, it is only fitting because ‘Made in Detroit’ has always meant something and will continue to as we onshore more manufacturing back home to the United States.”


Guranino said ISAIC isn’t in the business of making masks “just to make masks or to profit from the pandemic.”


“This work not only helped protect people when PPE was critically needed, but it also helped keep the organization functioning and allowed us to further our mission of developing a highly skilled workforce, providing good jobs for Detroiters and innovating for the future of the industry,” she added.

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