DuPont Ramps Up Safety Suit Production As Coronavirus Causes Shortages in China

The suits are used by health professionals to reduce the risk of infection

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Photo by Geem Drake/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Thousands of DuPont employees are working around the clock to increase production of protective garments that are in high demand by first responders and medical workers in high-impact regions like Wuhan, China.

The protective suits are used by health professionals during the outbreaks to reduce the risk of infection. Reports from China show workers running low on safety supplies including garments and masks.

The COVID-19 coronavirus has killed at least 2,249 people and sickened more than 76,700 worldwide. The majority of the cases and deaths are in China. Officials there have looked to contain the spread of highly contagious disease by closing schools and businesses for weeks. But for health workers on the frontlines, protective gear is crucial. 

At DuPont’s largest manufacturing facility in Richmond, Virginia, CNBC got an inside look at how the company is making changes to its operations to accommodate the rise in demand.

“It’s been really intense for us to build up production and make up a lot of products for the coronavirus, specifically,” said Stephanie Bernheisel, product engineer at DuPont.

Of the protective suits DuPont makes, the most popular is the white Tyvek suit, which costs anywhere between $5 to $15. The suit is thin and protects the body from many fluids, but does not cover the hands, feet or face. But it also makes heavy duty Hazmat suits that act as a shell around the entire body, and are often worn with an oxygen tank. Those suits can cost in many cases more than $1,000.

At the 500-acre factory in Richmond, heat and pressure are applied to the polyethylene fabric, it’s then flattened and rolled. The fabric is then sent to one of nine manufacturing facilities around the world where the final suit is made.

As DuPont’s Chinese factories return to full capacity, the company’s executive said it’s increasingly relying on operations in Vietnam.

“Vietnam is a large manufacturing base for us, our manufacturing in China today is largely for the China domestic need. So we’ve ramped that up inside China, and also in Vietnam,” said David Domnisch, DuPont personal protection global business director.

DuPont said following the Ebola outbreak, the company expanded its supply chain operations to allow the company to remain nimble and meet customer needs during times of need.

“Every time there’s an outbreak like this we try to learn from it. After the 2015 Ebola outbreak, we invested heavily in providing additional agility into our supply chain,” said Domnisch.

On average, DuPont makes 200 million protective garments a year. But, this year is shaping up to be anything but average.

RBC Capital said any increase in suit production could be meaningful to earnings but the disruption DuPont has seen in China could offset that.

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