Growing up in Duluth, Minnesota, in the 1990s, Lloyd Armbrust always figured he’d work at a factory. His father managed a lime processing plant in the city, which was dominated by manufacturing—until it wasn’t. Midwestern factories withered as companies started finding cheaper labor and supplies overseas. Armbrust instead found work in publishing and then ad tech. At holidays and family gatherings, he would listen sympathetically but somewhat skeptically to his father warn that the US would face a grand reckoning for allowing China to become the world’s factory.
Those warnings echoed in Armbrust’s head in April 2020 as he surveyed a 7-foot-tall machine wielding two pairs of sharp steel shears. In an impulsive pandemic project, the software entrepreneur had spent millions standing up a mask factory in Pflugerville, Texas, to meet Covid-driven demand and show that nimble manufacturing was still possible in the US. But the project was going off the rails.
The machine before him, shipped from China, was supposed to snip and attach surgical mask ear loops. It processed only about 100 masks before being hobbled by the failure of a fingertip-sized sensor monitoring its supply of string. It was a common and cheap component—in Taiwan, China, and Japan. In the US, it was unobtainable. Now Armbrust was held hostage by a $7 sensor, taunting him from thousands of miles away.
Production didn’t restart for over a week, while the company waited for sensors to arrive from overseas. “This opened my eyes—I thought, ‘Wow, the US really is behind,’” he says. His father was right about China, he realized: “They have such a tremendous infrastructure advantage.”
After a year filled with manufacturing scrambles, Armbrust American is now something of a success story. The company can produce 1 million masks a day and has supplied Texas public schools and the state of Illinois. It’s part of a mini industrial resurgence in response to the pandemic, as US manufacturers sprang up or pivoted to meet new demand. Ford workers cranked out face shields. Baltimore’s Marlin Steel Wire started making test-tube racks. Now, however, as economic normality and cheap imports return, Armbrust and others fear their hard-fought gains and lessons learned over the past year may be lost.
While others got obsessive about sourdough last spring, Armbrust grappled with the fallout from a vicious cycle of US industry, decades in the making: As imports of goods like masks led American factories to close, incentives to produce materials and machinery domestically also shrank. In turn, factories became that much harder to operate, or open.
A sensor snafu was far from the only problem Armbrust encountered on his entree into US manufacturing. The company had to ship most of its machinery from Asia and hire a translator to decode the less-than-complete documentation, usually written in Chinese. Some machines, which usually travel to much closer factories, arrived damaged in transit.
Materials and manufacturing expertise were also hard to come by. The fabric that forms the filtering layer inside a mask, called meltblown, is mostly produced in Asia. An Armbrust staffer secured an initial supply with a socially distanced deal in a Detroit parking lot. But the pandemic had pushed prices into the stratosphere, and the company soon decided to make meltblown for itself. Naturally, the necessary machine had to be shipped from China. Armbrust paid consultants to fly there from Germany to inspect the machine before its long journey to Pflugerville.
When the 35-foot-tall machine arrived, one engineer noticed with concern that there was no platform for accessing a part high off the ground that required regular maintenance. The supplier recommended wrapping the machine in chicken wire and having workers clamber up as needed—something Armbrust feared would be frowned on by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “We were like, ‘We can’t do that, people could die if they fall off,’” Armbrust says. “They said, ‘Oh they usually don’t die.’”
Armbrust also had to halt production over the holidays last year after a failed attempt to use software to monitor and automate production. The Chinese suppliers of the machine’s onboard controllers wouldn’t allow deep enough access to the data. Armbrust American ripped out the recalcitrant components and installed new controllers of its own, from Japan. “We literally learned everything in the hardest way possible,” Armbrust says.
Those hard lessons eventually paid off. The company stood up 11 largely automated surgical mask lines and saw labor costs drop from 10 cents per mask to about 3 cents today. It has another line making N95 respirators. Armbrust American employed 120 people at its peak. Alongside bulk sales to state governments and health systems, the company developed a healthy direct-to-consumer business on its own storefront, including child versions and multiple color options. Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) has been spotted wearing a shade called American Denim.
Stories like Armbrust’s unfolded throughout the pandemic as US manufacturers, both established and new, battled disruptions and steep learning curves. “The word that comes to mind is resilience,” says Chris Netram, a vice president at the National Association of Manufacturers. Their efforts have won new interest in the potential of US industry, he says, making it easier to get federal lawmakers to discuss policies such as NAM proposals for tax breaks and incentives for equipment, R&D, and training. In February, President Biden ordered reviews and policy proposals for several supply chains deemed crucial to national security, including for semiconductors and high-capacity batteries.
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Things are less rosy in the mask-making business. Armbrust and dozens of other US manufacturers fear their achievements may be washed away as the local economy and global supply chains rebound. As members of the newly formed American Mask Manufacturers Association, they requested more help in a letter to the White House last week, complaining that China is now dumping masks and respirators on the US.
The group says Chinese masks now sell for as little as a penny apiece in the US, despite raw materials costing at least three times that price. It predicts that half its collective production capacity will be lost within 60 days without federal intervention, such as the FDA reversing emergency authorizations of some overseas PPE, or requirements that federal PPE funding goes to US-made masks.
“No one in the US is going to get rich making masks,” Armbrust says. He’s hopeful the US will be willing to spend on supporting domestic production to avoid shortfalls in future crises, but says some scaling back is inevitable now that the Covid-19 pressure has lessened. His own factory is down to a “skeleton crew” now that demand for masks is falling. Armbrust aims to keep producing masks but has concluded that preserving his own piece of 2020’s US manufacturing boom requires pivoting. He’s exploring the idea of making air filters to remove airborne hazards from homes and perhaps cars. An American-made brand might convince consumers to pay the premium needed to overcome the inconveniences of US production.
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