From flour sacks to pandemic masks, Minneapolis factory keeps pivoting

Mike Noer walked the factory floor at textile manufacturer Airtex Group and pointed toward a new production line.

The machines cut and pleated a black roll of cotton fabric into face masks, kicking out up to 1,200 per hour. “None of this existed just weeks ago,” he said.

Airtex’s northeast Minneapolis factory, historically a cut-and-sew shop for high-end linen draperies and other home products, added mask-making soon after COVID-19 struck.

Workers started crafting masks by hand, as they do other products at the plant. But to be competitive in the suddenly surging mask market, Airtex invested about $500,000 in new machinery to automate the process.

“It has been a pretty interesting and exciting pivot for us,” said Noer, Airtex Group’s president. “What we are trying to do is to have globally competitive costs, but with a product made in the U.S. That is no easy task.”

Coronavirus has sparked a boom in personal protective equipment (PPE) production, with apparel and textile companies across the country — from small shops to major fashion brands — moving into masks.

The market has gotten a boost as public health researchers increasingly see masks as important in containing COVID-19. Plus, roughly 30 states have implemented some sort of order requiring masks to be worn in public.

Gov. Tim Walz’s decree for Minnesotans to be masked in stores, workplaces and restaurants went into effect last week. On Thursday, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued a mask mandate as the virus surged in his state.

Airtex jumped into making PPE in April when it began producing hand-sewn masks and nonsurgical gowns. The company’s core competencies suited the transition.

Its roots go back 102 years to the founding of Miller Bag Co., a maker of burlap bags for Minneapolis’ bustling flour industry and other agricultural and industrial customers. Later, Miller Bag would make grass-catcher bags for Toro lawn mowers.

Overseas competition and a move to paper bags diminished the business over the years. In 2000, Mike Miller, grandson of the company’s founder, merged Miller Bag with Airtex Design Group, a Minneapolis manufacturer of high-end home textiles.

Draperies, throws, pillows and other home products — many of them destined for Restoration Hardware stores — remain a staple. Airtex’s Minneapolis shop floor buzzes with workers from 12 nations stitching linens from Belgium and Italy. The company employs 75 people, almost solely in Minnesota, adding 10 workers this year.

Not only has mask-making taken off, but Airtex’s traditional business has been strong as cooped-up homeowners look to spruce up their digs. Airtex’s revenue has grown at a double digit pace in the last three years, and the company’s annual sales now range from $20 million to $30 million.

The synthetic gowns made by Airtex are still sewn by hand, as are more customized masks. But masks are primarily made on an assembly line inaugurated last month with the first of two new fabric-cutting machines. The second was fired up last week.

The mass production runs currently feature basic black. “That is the fabric we could get when we got the machines running,” Noer said. But Airtex plans other colors in all sorts of styles and prints from its in-house design team.

Airtex primarily sells masks to businesses and governments, though it also markets directly to consumers online under its “Acme Made” brand. Noer, who worked for over 20 years as an executive in various companies including Imation, set out on his own in 2015 and bought the Acme Made brand. He then merged his business with Airtex in 2017. (Miller is Airtex’s CEO).

Airtex sells Acme Made backpacks, bags and laptop sleeves produced by contract manufacturers in Vietnam, Cambodia and India. If Airtex wins particularly large mask bids for commercial clients, it may farm out some production to its manufacturing partners in Asia, Noer said.

Competition in the mask market is already intense. “You can go out to search at any retailer or on Amazon and it is already a race to the bottom from a price perspective,” Noer said.

But Noer believes Airtex has a high-quality product and the mask market has legs — otherwise the company wouldn’t have made such a large capital investment.

The question, of course, is how long does COVID-19 thrive before a vaccination is discovered?

And even when it is found, will some Americans continue wearing masks, as occurred in Asian countries after the spread of earlier vicious viruses?

“It will be a longer-term market,” Noer said. “Even if there is solution to COVID in the next year, there will probably be demand for masks for a while.”

 

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