Face Masks for Healthcare Heroes

An Interview with Podiumwear CEO Reid Lutter During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Podiumwear CEO Reid Lutter and a monster roll of PPE fabric 8-miles long.

What does Podiumwear manufacture in normal times?

Podiumwear designs and manufactures high-performance athletic team apparel for nordic skiing, cycling, soccer, running and ultimate frisbee. Our most popular products are ski suits, jackets, cycling jerseys and bibs and soccer jerseys and shorts.  We have over 150 different products for teams within our 5 lines of apparel.  They are all custom made in our St. Paul, MN factory. The manufacturing process involves designing custom graphics for each team, printing the designs onto paper, transferring the printed pattern pieces onto fabric (a process called “sublimation”), cutting the pattern pieces from the fabric, sewing the final product and then shipping to our clients.  We are a craft shop, specializing in smaller manufacturing runs and attention to detail.

Finished medical-grade masks.Finished medical-grade masks.

What was your reaction to the Stay-at-Home order from MN Gov. Waltz at the end of March? 

While we knew it was most likely going to happen, it was still overwhelming when it became a reality. Our design, sales and customer service teams could all work from home without too much trouble, but having our production crew stay at home meant they couldn't work. I spent the first few days alone at the factory trying to figure out how we could help. Putting our machines to use making medical-grade face masks seemed like the obvious thing to do.  After a week of recalibrating the machines, I was able to call our production employees back and have been busy working on face masks for healthcare workers ever since.

Rolls of elastic rigged-up on a Podiuwmear cut table.Rolls of elastic rigged-up on a Podiuwmear cut table.

What were some of the challenges of pivoting from custom team apparel to face mask production?

Podiumwear is a craft factory. Our machines are nimble. They are set up to make short runs of multiple styles, multiple sizes, and multiple designs. The biggest challenge was transitioning overnight into a factory that could produce one product on a massive scale.  For example, we suddenly needed the ability to cut hundreds of rolls of elastic into 6-inch pieces for the masks but we didn’t have the right machine.  We improvised with one of our fabric cutting tables.  Usually this cut table uses a camera to read pattern markers on rolls of specialty athletic fabric and then it cuts those pattern pieces out.  Right now, it’s jerry-rigged up with 24 rolls of elastic so we can feed them through at one time, cutting at 6-inch intervals. 

3-Ply medical-grade masks being cut & sealed with the laser cut machine.

We set up anther laser cutting table to cut basic mask shapes out of a special 3-ply sandwich of medical grade fabric. The laser seals the edges of the fabric layers together for a finished product requiring no sewing.  Discovering new ways to use this equipment has been really exciting, especially when it we know it’s doing good in the world.

What about that huge roll of fabric?

Our sewing partner, Clothier Design Source, was working on getting the specialty fabric required for PPE masks.  That was a huge hurdle in the first place.  With supply chains broken down all over the world right now, it’s like the Wild West out there. Fabric companies and distributors aren't even sure what they have in stock. They don’t know how or when they can get it to us. Many providers are simply not responding at all because their mills are shut down.

The fabric that was eventually secured arrived in one gigantic roll that weighed 1000 lbs. and was literally 8 miles long. It’s the kind of thing that large-scale industrial factories can handle, but we had never seen anything like it.

Unweighting the industrial fabric so we can begin the unrolling/re-rolling process.Unweighting the industrial fabric so we can begin the unrolling/re-rolling process.

The only way we’d be able to make use of the fabric was to put it on smaller rolls that our specialty cutting machines could handle.  That meant unrolling and then re-rolling it, which we were not set up to do.   We were able to fit the huge roll in front of our transfer machine, which has a powered re-roller in the back.  So we just needed to figure out how to get this 1000 lb. monster unweighted enough so we could get it to start spinning.  We knew the roller bars for our transfer machine could handle a lot of weight.  We took one of those bars along with some pvc tubing, and made a new core for the huge roll. We used two pallet jacks to unweight the roll from the bottom.  Then we strapped either side of the core to two iron beams running across the ceiling of our production space.  This took even more weight off so we could start to spin it.

Unrollling begins on the transfer machine.Unrollling begins on the transfer machine.

In the beginning it took 3 people to keep it straight, get it going and then carefully feed it through the sublimation machine.  We still haven’t seen the end of this roll.  We are re-rolling it bit by bit and will continue to do that until it’s gone and thousands of masks are made.

How are your employees feeling about this new endeavor? 

Everyone feels good about putting energy into helping during this time.  We've always been proud to be one of the few companies making apparel in the U.S. and that pride has definitely carried over in a big way with this mask project.  It's empowering to say “we are joining the fight.”  It really does feel like a war-time effort.

Sewing the masks.CDS employee sewing the masks.

What has the reaction from customers been like?

We're very lucky to have supportive clients.  In addition to the medical-grade masks we are making for healthcare workers, we’ve recently starting making face masks for the general public because so many clients were asking for something they could wear too.  It feels like our clients really want to support us during this uncertain time and that feels great.

Masks are now also available for the general public.

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