Grow in Duluth, Minnesota, in the 1990s, Lloyd Armbrust always thought he would work in a factory. Her father ran a lime processing plant in the city, which was dominated by manufacturing – until it wasn’t. Factories in the Midwest weakened as companies began to find cheaper labor and supplies overseas. Instead, Armbrust found work in publishing and then in advertising technology. On holidays and family reunions, he listened sympathetically but with a little skepticism to his father warn that the United States would face big accounts to allow China to become the factory of the world.
These warnings echoed through Armbrust’s head in April 2020 as he inspected a 7-foot-tall machine wielding two pairs of sharp steel shears. In an impulse pandemic project, the software entrepreneur had spent millions to build a mask factory in Pflugerville, Texas to meet demand driven by Covid and show that agile manufacturing was still possible in the United States . But the project was derailed.
The machine in front of him, shipped from China, was supposed to cut and tie the earrings on surgical masks. He only processed a hundred masks before being hampered by the failure of a finger-sized sensor monitoring his rope supply. It was a common and inexpensive component – in Taiwan, China, and Japan. In the United States, it was impossible to obtain. Now Armbrust was held hostage by a $ 7 sensor, taunting him thousands of miles away.
Production did not restart for more than a week, while the company awaited the arrival of sensors from overseas. “It opened my eyes – I thought, ‘Wow, America is really late,’” he says. His father was right about China, he realized, “They have a huge advantage in terms of infrastructure.”
After a hectic year in the making, Armbrust American is now somewhat of a success story. The company can produce 1 million masks per day and has supplied public schools in Texas and the state of Illinois. It’s part of a mini industrial resurgence in response to the pandemic, as US manufacturers have grown or pivoted to meet new demand. Ford workers hand crank face shields. Marlin Steel Wire of Baltimore began manufacturing test tube racks. Now, however, as economic normalcy and cheap imports return, Armbrust and others fear their hard-fought gains and the lessons learned over the past year may be lost.
While others were obsessed with sourdough this past spring, Armbrust has struggled with the fallout from a vicious cycle of American industry, decades in the making: as imports of products such as face masks have led US factories to close, incentives to produce materials and machinery domestically have also declined. In turn, factories have become much more difficult to operate or open.
A snafu sensor was far from the only problem Armbrust encountered when it entered manufacturing in the United States. The company had to ship most of its machines to Asia and hire a translator to decode the incomplete documentation, usually written in Chinese. Some machines, which usually travel to much closer factories, have arrived damaged in transit.
Materials and manufacturing expertise were also hard to come by. The fabric that forms the filter layer inside a mask, called meltblown, is mainly produced in Asia. An Armbrust staff member secured an initial supply with a socially distant deal in a Detroit parking lot. But the pandemic had pushed prices into the stratosphere, and the company quickly decided to melt for itself. Of course, the necessary machine had to be shipped from China. Armbrust paid consultants to fly out of Germany to inspect the machine before its long trip to Pflugerville.
When the 35-foot-tall machine arrived, an engineer noted with concern that there was no platform to access an overhead section that required regular maintenance. The supplier recommended wrapping the machine in wire mesh and having workers climb up as needed – something Armbrust feared would be frowned upon by the occupational safety and health administration. “We were like, ‘We can’t do this, people could die if they fall,’” said Armbrust. “They said, ‘Oh, they don’t usually die.’”