Scrambling to compete for personal protective equipment (PPE) in a global market amid a pandemic is something the federal government said it didn’t want to happen again. But with vaccines ramping up and demand for PPE expected to wane, it’s hard to say if Canada won’t be forced to rely on imports in the next crisis.
Many Canadian companies jumped into the PPE production market at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, from distilleries that made hand sanitizer to apparel manufacturers that produced medical gowns. But experts say that much of the cost of that initial production is unsustainable in the long-term.
“In the beginning, when they were trying to produce this stuff, it didn’t matter what it cost, it was all hands on deck,” says Dennis Darby, president and chief executive officer of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters. “As things settle down, I think the sober reflections companies are having is how to do this economically.”
Canada is at a different point of this pandemic, hoping to turn a corner soon, and this means moving out of panic mode and into a more sustainable manufacturing model for its PPE, which includes surgical masks, plastic face shields and medical gowns. But experts say a more secure supply chain is needed to make domestic production a future reality.
For Penny Wise, president of 3M Canada, the pandemic highlighted the need for Canada to think about its overall industrial strategy and consider what’s required for self-sufficiency in the future.
“As a country with 38 million people in it, we obviously cannot manufacture everything,” says Ms. Wise. “We have to be selective about what we do, and really prioritize where we are going to invest to be ready for future events and crises.”
At its new respirator mask plant in Brockville, Ont., production of 3Ms coveted N95 respirator mask – which were in high demand (and low supply) for front-line health care workers early in the pandemic – will now increase to at least 50 million masks a year thanks to a $70-million, five-year agreement between the company and the federal and provincial governments.
This new domestic production means Canada won’t be at the mercy of imports when it comes to this piece of protective equipment, says Ms. Wise. “From a 3M perspective, we are well positioned to provide what is needed and what the governments have asked us to provide as part of our N95 facility.”
But for other companies, particularly those that are not a large global entity, the cost of domestic production, and whether they will be undercut in the future by cheaper imports, is always top-of-mind.
“For those in the PPE market right now, you either have to get out or innovate,” says David Yeaman, president and co-owner of Molded Precision Components, a company specializing in complex plastic components for the auto industry.
Last March, his company, located near Barrie, Ont., moved its warehouse into a local hockey rink and upped its staff from 55 to 185 in order to produce more than 450,000 face shields per day.
“One of the reasons we were so successful with the shields is because we’re this vertically integrated company, meaning that we do everything in house … so we didn’t need people from the outside world, that’s how we moved so quickly,” explains Mr. Yeaman.
Now he’s trying to get the first medical industrial park, called MediCA Park, built on 83 acres in southern Ontario, where other companies, like his, can competitively produce PPE so the country doesn’t need to rely on imports. Using vertical integration, the objective of the park is to get companies together so they can complement each other and ultimately secure the supply chain. But he adds that the success of the park will all come down to whether Canadian-made PPE can be made cost-effectively.
“At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to cost and you worry that in a year or so it’s all going to gravitate back [to imports] and then so much for reshoring,” says Mr. Yeaman. “That’s what the park is trying to avoid.”
While many manufacturers are looking to ramp up their PPE production, there are others that jumped into PPE manufacturing last year that are now getting out.
For some, like Mustang Survival, a producer of outdoor gear and personal flotation devices, it’s a case of simply fulfilling its contracts and then going back to its regular business. In April 2020, the company’s production line shifted to include reusable medical gowns for front-line workers. This continued until late last year. The company has said “it has fulfilled its contract and was happy to do so.” But there is no PPE production in Mustang Survival’s future; the company is making a full return to its outdoor gear roots, according to a company spokesperson.
For others, like Truro, Nova Scotia’s Stanfield’s Ltd., ending PPE production was not a choice. Last year, this family-run underwear manufacturer retooled its facility to make medical gowns to ease PPE shortages. But earlier this year, Stanfield’s contract to produce PPE for the federal government wasn’t renewed. In March, according to the company, there were 300,000 unused medical gowns in its warehouse and it had to lay off 150 employees as a result of the lost contract.
A shift in the pandemic has brought a new phase for Canada’s PPE manufacturers, and the end game, for both new and old, is not only to supply the domestic market, but to make greener, more effective PPE in the years to come, explains Barry Hunt, president of the Canadian Association of PPE Manufacturers.
“At first it was about getting the products made, now it’s about a better product, with greener standards not just for the product,” says Mr. Hunt. “Now it’s about starting to consider the ethical and economical considerations, like living wage and fair trade practices, and ethical workplace practices.”
“We have definitely pivoted –– again.”