Even Honeywell’s Mask Man Can’t Get Enough

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(Bloomberg) -- Editor’s Note: Covid-19 has fundamentally changed how we live and work -- in ways big and small. “Redefining Normal” captures how that transformation is playing out across North America, from its metropolises to its rural hamlets and all the towns in between.

If you’re looking to score a few N95 masks, Will Lange would seem to be the perfect connection.

He’s chief of the Personal Protection Equipment unit at Honeywell International Inc., overseeing two new U.S. production lines that will boost mask output 20 million a month by September. But when people find out what he does and start to get excited, he has to let them down easy.

“I don’t even have samples,” Lange said. “My own family yells at me and says, ‘How do we not have masks?’”

Even Honeywell’s Mask Man Can’t Get Enough

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, demand for N95 respirator masks has spiked 30-fold from the 50 million sold in the U.S. last year. First, hospitals were desperate; now it’s businesses who need them for reopening. The clamor has been so intense, Lange was concerned thieves would break into the company’s distribution center. He hired extra security guards, installed cameras and had local police patrol around the warehouse more often.

For fear of tipping off would-be robbers, Lange won’t even say where the facility is located.

N95s are the gold standard for protecting people against the new coronavirus. The disposable mask’s tightly coiled fabric filters out floating virus particles. It’s standard equipment for all health care and emergency response workers -- and coveted by everyone else.

Right now, every single respirator mask Honeywell makes at its U.S. plants goes straight to government stockpiles. Lange is overseeing efforts to ramp up production as fast as possible to meet demand. Those two new U.S. production lines got stood up in lass than six weeks instead of the usual nine months.

New facilities are cranking out masks in Scotland and the United Arab Emirates, which Honeywell uses to supply its commercial customers. By September, the company’s total N95 mask production will be about 20 times its pre-pandemic level.

So when can your average American expect to be able to buy an N95 in the neighborhood store? Looks like it won’t be sooner than mid-2021. That’s when Lange sees supply beginning to catch up with demand. The main bottleneck right now is the need for more machines that make the “melt-blown material” -- the extremely thin strands of plastic swirled into a fabric that compose the mask’s filter. There’s only two manufacturers: Oerlikon in Switzerland and Reifenhauser in Germany.

Even Honeywell’s Mask Man Can’t Get Enough

Managing expectations has been a big part of Lange’s job. Many customers got burned early on by unscrupulous brokers who cranked up prices and promised supplies they couldn’t deliver. Honeywell is signing contracts with customers now that stretch over at least 18 months, setting a schedule for deliveries that can be met as production increases.

While some suppliers charge as much as $8 each for N95 masks, Lange has committed to keeping the manufacturer suggested retail price for Honeywell respirators at the same $1.10 that it was before the pandemic. And he’s selling them to the U.S. government for 80 cents.

Lange doesn’t expect the demand surge to subside anytime soon. Dentist and doctor offices, restaurants, factories and essential workers in businesses like construction and cleaning all want N95s for daily use when they become available.

And though he can’t nab a box of N95s for friends and family, he’s hoping within a few days he’ll be able to start passing around samples of a new Honeywell product that he’s pitching to sports teams and airlines. It’s a washable cloth mask with a replaceable filter made of the same material as the N95s. It can be printed with messages and logos, but you’ll pay for the privilege: It goes for $30.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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