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100M Masks/Day: Automated Production Lines Work Overtime to Stop COVID-19 Spread

Pushed by the coronavirus outbreak, in early March 2020 China’s face mask production hit 110 percent capacity, with daily output exceeding 100 million masks according to state agency statistics.

Despite the ramped-up production the available mask supply still falls short of the needs of 115 million blue-collar workers getting back to work and over 10 million medical staff fighting on the front lines — who in theory should change protective gear every four hours. The shortage is also exacerbated by the increasing global spread of COVID-19.

Statistics collection by Synced

Normally, the production cost for disposable medical masks is about CN¥2.5 (USD 3.6 cents), and Guangdong province mask manufacturer Wu Jun tells Synced he usually makes about CN¥2 (3 cents) profit per mask. The government is now levelling fines against price inflation in drug stores and other retail outlets, “so the profit we make is almost the same,” explains Wu.

Manufacturers are facing many serious challenges. Although medical masks and respirators are only the size of a palm, their production supply chain integrates the petrochemical, plastic, textile and medical industries, where many companies are experiencing their own disruptions.

Mask manufacturers are also trapped by price inflation of supplies, as the cost of raw materials and basic mask components is rising daily. According to an industry insider, “the cost of meltblown cloth has increased by 15 times, nose bridges 10 times, earbands by 15 times, labour by 20 times, machine cost 10 times, and the price of a mechanic by 50 times! Yet there is no rise in facial mask retail prices on the market… “

Functional medical masks consist of three layers. The most critical component stopping the COVID-19 virus lies in the middle melt-blown layer, which is also the most costly to produce. Image source: Centre for Health Protection, HKSARG

Supplies are not only expensive but also increasingly limited. According to reports by China Newsweek, there are about 100 companies in China that can produce medical melt-blown cloth with a BEF 95 percent (filtration efficiency above 95 percent). These have a total daily production capacity of about 100 tons. Based on a calculation of 0.9 to 1 million masks per ton, melt-blown cloth production will be stretched to support 90 million masks per day.

The various supply chain distortions have not stopped companies from entering the market — since COVID-19 appeared the number of Chinese companies associated with “masks” and “respiratory protection” has skyrocketed to more than 10,000.

Not all masks are the same, and current manufacturers qualified for medical mask production account for less than two percent of all registered companies. Licensed companies are betting on automated production lines to speed things up.

Pulisi, a former printing equipment maker company, has repurposed its quality testing machines into automated mask makers powered by AI computer vision technologies. Pulisi manager Liu Lu tells Synced that his fully-automated production line can produce 90 masks per minute, and has a daily production capacity over three shifts of about 130,000 pieces.

It is estimated that by the end of February, Guangdong province alone had more than 4,000 automated production lines, all working virtually nonstop.

Example of a full automatic mask production equipment

China is the world’s largest medical mask producer, exporting 70 percent of total production. On March 5 the country’s Ministry of Commerce confirmed in a statement that while working to ensuring domestic needs, China will also continue to provide mask assistance to other countries fighting COVID-19.

Source: Synced China

Localization: Meghan Han | Editor: Michael Sarazen

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