Written by Debra Weinryb, Content Strategist at diff agency
An agile and innovative approach to retail
Founded in Boston by four MIT students in 2011, Ministry of Supply creates comfortable, high-performance professional apparel that fuses form and function. Diff helped Ministry of Supply develop an omnichannel strategy for their rapidly expanding brand, including a reliable integration with their 3PL and a new responsive site built on Shopify Plus. Multiple design iterations and custom enhancements ensured Ministry of Supply stayed agile and innovative.
Agile is a value that the Ministry of Supply holds highly, inclusive of design, development, as well as manufacturing. The company follows an agile approach to supply-chain management, for example, allowing the company to scale up production to address changing demands in fashion and apparel. Today, staying agile means switching to manufacturing and producing masks that are needed to help front-line healthcare workers face the COVID-19 pandemic.
From 3D printing clothing to masks
Ministry of Supply has been 3D printing performance clothing for a few years, with some onsite in their Boston store. Their seamless blazer 3D Print-Knit, for example, is constructed to enhance versatility and resilience. Through fabric prototyping, and rapid design testing, the company has become skilled in agile manufacturing.
When the pandemic started, Ministry of Supply’s knowledge of iterating new prototypes equipped them to collaborate with doctors, nurses and engineers to develop an immediate solution. Partnering with high-tech Shima Seiki, a top manufacturer of computerized knitting machines, Ministry of Supply developed an open-source program to design and manufacture a new type of mask using 3D Print-Knit technology.
Shifting to 3D Print-Knit technology allowed Ministry of Supply to meet the demand for manufacturing medical protective equipment in the face of interruptions to the global supply chain. With a manufacturing time of less than 9 minutes per Mask°, Ministry of Supply is proving how 3D printed solutions can help get products to market faster during this crucial time.
The company is facing the health crisis by shifting their capacity and budget to design and manufacture thousands of masks to get into the hands of medical professionals. Through donations and support, the company plans to continue partnering with experts to design and produce their featured Mask°, in addition to Face Masks and N95/KN95 Respirators.
Understanding three types of masks
There are three types of primary masks, defined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA):
1. Face Masks include a variety of generic masks that cover the nose and mouth. These may or may not meet liquid or filtration efficiency levels.
2. Surgical masks are FDA regulated, Class 2 devices. These cover the nose and mouth and are designed to provide liquid barrier protection and filtration.
3. N95/N95 Respirators are normally regulated by the FDA and NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health). They provide 95% filtration efficiency of particles greater than 0.3 microns and create a 100% seal around the nose and mouth.
When these aren’t available, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) encourages the use of homemade masks, like bandanas or headscarves. This is also encouraged to be used together with a face shield. However, these simple masks aren’t always highly effective.
Manufacturing Masks° for performance
Ministry of Supply sought to produce a mask within the FDA COVID-19 Face Mask Public Health Guidelines that could be provided when respirators and N95 masks are not made available for healthcare workers. By partnering with doctors and nurses at MIT, and Makerhealth, a company that helps create tools to help invent new medical devices, Ministry of Supply achieved this goal.
Here are a few benefits of their featured Mask°:
Breathability: Using their 3D Print-Knit process, Ministry of Supply quickly iterated new prototypes and tested different yarn combinations. Ultimately they decided on viscose because it offered the most breathability, softness and a dry microclimate.
Filter system: Each mask features a pocket for a replaceable filtration membrane. For the filter media pocket, Ministry of Supply met HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Arrestance) guidelines recommended by their advisors. With the company’s experience in working with non-woven fabrics for the interlinings of suits and shirts, and by following guidelines that are recommended for air purification, they were able to create a comfortable structure.
By using non-woven material filters to make clothing, they can filter out particles when compressed. Gihan Amarasirwardena, Ministry of Supply Co-Founder explained to Fast Company, “Non-woven fabric fuses together several layers of material, much like paper fuses together layers of cellulose fibers.” By achieving this, non-woven material filters out particles when compressed.
Comfort: 3D Print-Knit processing has allowed for 3D shaping. This enables the Ministry of Supply to create structures for the mouth and nose, to make a snug and pleasant fit.
Designed by humans, built by machines
With an agile supply chain, Ministry of Supply plans to adjust their designs and scale up production to address the changing demands of healthcare workers, according to their interview with WWD. Amarasiriwardena mentioned, “As we continue ramping up supply, we’re planning to offer the masks on a national scale by early April. And, if more partners want to get involved, we can scale demand even faster and ship to more facilities.”
Similar to the way the company might adjust production if one style is selling faster than another, they have also mentioned they will adjust their manufacturing focus to produce more masks as needed.
While masks are designed by the Ministry of Supply team and partners, they are built by 3D printing machines. This means that the company can run multiple knitting machines around the clock to meet demand, without interfering with the design and production of their apparel and clothing.
Want to support this great cause? Ministry of Supply is accepting donations.
Ministry of Supply is now accepting donations to support their COVID-19 response. 100% of all donations and 20% of every sale of their products will be used for the continued production and distribution of their masks, including their featured Mask°design, in addition to Face Masks and N95 Equivalent Respirators.
While not for general sale, each donation will be used to support the continued manufacturing of masks for front-line health workers at this critical moment. While Ministry of Supply has primarily focussed on supporting masks to medical professionals in Boston, Amarasiriwardena has mentioned plans to expand this coverage nationwide.
On April 15, Ministry of Supply announced on their Instagram that over $100, 000 has been raised for PPE for the Mask Donation program.
With support from customers, as well as the generosity of several of their partners and supply chain, Ministry of Supply announced that they have been able to provide much needed masks to healthcare professionals including:
– $104, 725 raised through donations
– 35, 000 N95-equivalent respirators and surgical masks produced and prepared for shipment from their factory
– Completion of production of 30,000 respirators and 5,000 surgical masks – and with the support of logistics partners, the company is flying them to hospitals in need
– 3,000 face masks donated to Boston Medical Center and other area hospitals to be used immediately by front-line health workers
– 1,500 3D Print-Knit Masks° produced and counting
Thanks to their partners Nimbly Made and Andari, Ministry of Supply says that a new Mask° comes off the machine every 7 minutes. They’ve also been laser cutting HEPA filters to fit. In the next few days, they announced that Masks° will be deployed at Harvard Vanguard Medical, an American non-profit group specializing in medical practices operating in eastern Massachusetts.
Even as the company shifts to the delivery of masks, Gihan and the Ministry of Supply team expressed in their social channels, “We’re continuing our work on research, development and production of our Masks° and innovation in the development of PPE for now and the future.” To support the Ministry of Supply Response Mask Initiative, you can donate here.
Ministry of Supply Joined Brands X Better
As of April, Ministry of Supply joined Brands X Better, a coalition of consumer brands looking to give back and “foster stability in a time of crisis.” To date, Brands X Better has raised over $500, 000. To contribute, the company will donate 2% of sales to Boston Medical Center. You can read more about Brands X Better here.
Thinking forward to combat the Coronavirus crisis
From considering manufacturing methods to re-thinking the way their supply chain operates, Ministry of Supply leads as an example of a retailer that constantly innovates to design, build and test products to perform.Their agile manufacturing approach, of fabric prototyping and rapid design testing, allowed the company to swiftly pivot their operations to create masks to support front-line healthcare workers during the crisis. The COVID-19 Response Mask° Initiative also demonstrates how innovating new approaches to address supply chain challenges, like 3D printing, can help retailers respond in moments of disruption.
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This article originally appeared in the Diff Agency blog and has been published here with permission.