CITEVE is providing technical specification sheets for the production of community protection masks. The technological institute’s guidelines are in accordance with the recommendations of the Health Authority (DGS) published on the 13th of April, suggesting the general population should wear masks as protection against COVID-19.
The Portuguese textile and clothing industry was not prepared for a pandemic scenario. But, as was the case in other crises, it was able to adapt very quickly. The initiative started in solidarity for hospitals and health professionals to offer support to help with the shortage of protective material and promptly evolved into a potential new business.
CITEVE is at the core of this joint effort. The Portuguese technological institute has been working non-stop to facilitate and advise on best practice for all COVID-19 related production. Every day, it opens its doors to a team of “brains” specialising in chemistry, engineering, R&D and technical assistance to support the hundreds of companies wanting to contribute and compete in this new segment.
Just a few hours after the Health Authority (DGS) recommended the use of community masks as an additional protection measure, CITEVE provided technical specification sheets to hundreds of Portuguese companies so that they could manufacture protective masks. Braz Costa, general-director of CITEVE, talked with MODAPORTUGAL about the actions that have been adopted by the technological institute and its prognosis for the short-term future.
CITEVE incorporates a team with a lot of experience in areas such as chemicals, physics and textile engineering. So I can tell you that it all started with a meeting that I scheduled with three other people, which I called “Brains Meeting”, right after we implemented a first contingency plan.
Was CITEVE prepared to respond to a pandemic?
Braz Costa: We were not, for several reasons. Firstly, because the production of disposable personal protective equipment and surgical masks was not an area of expertise for the Portuguese textile and clothing industry. This is because we are talking about very low cost productions, and Portuguese companies have been increasingly focused on the manufacture of more complex articles with higher added value.
Secondly, we were not prepared in some more technical aspects, namely the method for determining particle retention, which had to be developed, tested and validated by our team in collaboration with Infarmed — National Authority of Medicines and Health Products.
However, an organisation like CITEVE is an organisation based on critical mass. Therefore, this work was not done from scratch. CITEVE incorporates a team with a lot of experience in areas such as chemicals, physics and textile engineering. So I can tell you that it all started with a meeting that I scheduled with three other people, which I called “Brains Meeting”, right after we implemented a first contingency plan.
We started a very close liaison with the Ministry of Health to understand how we should organise our work to support companies that had no experience in working with medical equipment.
What was CITEVE’s first contingency plan?
BC: From the beginning, we knew that if we had a positive case of COVID-19 within CITEVE, we would have to close and stop giving support to companies. You also have to bear in mind that Portuguese companies aren’t just working on pandemic related production and that March was still an exceptional month for clothing and fashion manufacturers.
We started by dividing our team into two shifts and alternating between working remotely and onsite so that their paths never crossed. Then, I gathered a group of colleagues and we drew up some scenarios to predict what would happen next. From then on, we installed new methods in the laboratory, created a specific team dedicated exclusively to research and development for COVID-19 and made the first technical specification sheets to deliver to the companies.
We started a very close liaison with the Ministry of Health to understand how we should organise our work to support companies that had no experience in working with medical equipment. I am talking about companies that have enormous experience in textile development and manufacturing and a very strong textile culture, but that had never worked with this type of product.
It was impossible to bring materials from China or other manufacturing countries, either because the borders are closed or because their governments have ordered to channel production for internal consumption.
When did companies start expressing an interest to make these new products?
BC: At first, it came from a spirit of volunteering and solidarity, since this type of equipment was scarce and Portugal was dependent on external suppliers. But what was our main concern? We thought, “Okay, let’s tell the manufacturers how to produce surgical gowns.” But right away they asked me, “Where do I get the raw material?” At that moment, a new challenge arose.
It was impossible to bring materials from China or other manufacturing countries, either because the borders are closed or because their governments have ordered to channel production for internal consumption. So, we started looking for Made in Portugal materials that could be used, such as knits, fabrics and non-wovens, produced for totally different applications, such as geo-textiles and the automotive sector. Then, we decided to challenge these manufacturers to improve products and processes in order to be able to supply these types of materials.
We analysed hundreds of different materials and did many tests, because it is very difficult to achieve filtration and breathability at the level of surgical masks with traditional textile materials.
Are these the materials used to produce masks?
BC: The masks are an icon. The majority of technical specification information requests were for this product. But, the truth is, we were better able to produce gowns, boot covers, tunics, etc. Regarding the masks in particular, our work was enormous, but it was also very exciting. We analysed hundreds of different materials and did many tests, because it is very difficult to achieve filtration and breathability at the level of surgical masks with traditional textile materials.
It was an iterative and interactive collaboration between CITEVE and the Portuguese companies, to be able to fine-tune even the certified materials. But a very important fact regarding the masks is that initially and mistakenly we were trying to produce textile masks that fulfilled the requirements of surgical masks. We didn’t take into account that these masks would not be used in an operating room context. This meant that these masks didn’t need to be sterile or prevent particles from being released into the textile.
Since then, we have collaborated with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Economy to identify the requirements for a mask which can be worn in public. It is a different type of mask, which we call a community mask, aimed at the general public. There are two different types within this new category: One for the regular member of the public and another for people whose professional activity involves direct contact with many people. The latter refers to people working in customer service who have no way of maintaining the recommended social distance, such as supermarket cashiers or bus drivers.
Combined with other measures, like social distancing and frequent hand washing, these masks can bring greater security to activities that we continue to do in our daily lives, such as going to the supermarket.
Could these community masks be a solution for people to be able to return to their “normal” life?
BC: I would not say that community masks are a solution, but they will certainly be an important contribution. If we compare Portugal to other countries, particularly those nearby, I do not think that the fight against this pandemic is going badly here and the economy has to start recovering. However, asking people to go back to work too soon could be very dangerous, with the risk of infection increasing quickly. We cannot therefore talk about a solution, instead about a contribution.
Combined with other measures, like social distancing and frequent hand washing, these masks can bring greater security to activities that we continue to do in our daily lives, such as going to the supermarket. If the entire population starts using them, it prevents people, especially asymptomatic people, from spreading the virus without knowing it.
Therefore using of these masks will ensure that the measures to ease containment and confinement do not bring about a greater problem. They provide protection not only for the person wearing them, but for the whole community.
Speaking in the short term and about the manufacture of masks in particular, many jobs can be created in the coming weeks or even months, which will help companies to keep their activity and jobs.
Regarding the textile and clothing industry, you said that initially production was focused on addressing the lack of equipment, mainly aimed at hospitals and health professionals. Looking to the future, can we anticipate a new business opportunity?
BC: Certainly! We have not yet been able to predict what the sector will look like after the pandemic has passed. We know it will be different, but we don’t know precisely how. We also know that the textile and manufacturing industry will continue to function, as will the clothing and fashion business. What remains to be seen is what shape this will take and what the world map of production and consumption will be in the future.
Portugal has already experienced many situations of comfort and discomfort related to changes in the geopolitical map, but in this case, we don’t know for sure what will happen. But speaking in the short term and about the manufacture of masks in particular, many jobs can be created in the coming weeks or even months, which will help companies to keep their activity and jobs. Community masks should not only be channelled to fight the pandemic within Portugal. There is also a potential market outside our borders.
The community protection measures that are being implemented, such as the recommendation to start wearing these masks, will be common to several countries. As these countries are not manufacturers, we may, for a while, sell fewer shirts and t-shirts and more community masks. We have indicators that tell us that this product will become part of the collections that these companies produce for several brands.
If Portugal continues to work well and position itself in this market in a timely manner, as I am sure it will, there is a great business opportunity for our industry to provide a new area of expertise.
Are you saying the community mask will be a fashion accessory?
BC: Exactly. In the same way that clothing brands have evolved into designing accessories, I think they will begin to integrate masks into their collections. And I would even say that it won’t be long before low-cost masks, value-added masks and luxury masks are available. If Portugal continues to work well and position itself in this market in a timely manner, as I am sure it will, there is a great business opportunity for our industry to provide a new area of expertise.
I’m convinced that the world will change a lot and protective equipment will become fashionable. If people can buy a mask that, besides being beautiful, is comfortable, sustainable and still offers a degree of extra protection against bacteria and viruses, they will want to spend their money on it. I would say even more than when we talk about sustainability, because in the area of sustainability, as a general rule, the consumer buys if the price is equivalent. But consumers will be more open to investing in products that offer a high degree of complexity and performance the in the area of health and safety.
The truth is no one can guess the future, but we have a responsibility and obligation to maintain a body of knowledge and skills in-house which will allow us to go where we have to go.
What protective measures is CITEVE currently taking and how can companies contact you?
BC: Right now, our COVID-19 team is split in two. Both work within CITEVE, but in different areas. This team is made up of all the people who work in our laboratory, and professionals in the areas of engineering, development and technical assistance. Our technical assistance team is very specialised and is well prepared to answer hundreds of phone calls and thousands of emails a day, a phenomenon never seen before at CITEVE. We are also available onsite, because the companies that are delivering samples end up asking for advice and other clarification. We have made all the technical specification sheets available for download on our website, which is updated daily.
What prospects does CITEVE have planned for the future?
BC: I am currently organising a think tank on the future. One of CITEVE’s great missions is to be able to anticipate. The truth is no one can guess the future, but we have a responsibility and obligation to maintain a body of knowledge and skills in-house which will allow us to go where we have to go. Right now, I can only make short term projections. But one thing is for sure, we cannot be caught off guard by what comes next. Our ability to anticipate is precisely the ability to be aware of what the possibilities and scenarios could be and find several options to keep us in the game whatever may happen in the future. ♦
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