The pandemic exposed the precariousness of global supply lines - and Auckland company Lanaco reacted by creating a new production line. This can turn out 1 million N95-rated masks per month from local materials right now, eliminating its previous need to lean on a Chinese partner.
It will officially open on July 30. By year's end, it should have capacity for 2 million N95-level masks per month, with around half of those pegged for the export market.
When the Herald last caught up with Lanaco founder and CEO Nick Davenport in early February, his company had orders for 500,000 N95-grade masks and was gearing up for a big production run.
An N95 or P2-grade mask filters out at least 95 per cent of particles of 0.3 microns or larger, meaning it can block coronavirus particles (which are 0.1 microns, but always bonded to something larger than 0.3 microns).
The technology is nothing new for Lanaco, which for a decade has been selling various products based on a "Helix" filtration system that takes advantage of the natural properties of wool from purpose-bred Astino sheep in Otago.
Pre-outbreak, as it services the industrial and environmental sectors, Lanaco made its filters for its masks in Auckland but the final mask was made in China, which was where the company was at during our last catchup in the New Year.
"Back then, we had a truckload of orders and our filter media was being made in New Zealand and the mask-making was being done in China," Davenport says.
"But because of what happened with Covid, China shut its borders and left us in the lurch.
"All of that product and service out of Asia was held up for months and it caused us a lot of grief.
"So what we did was set about a plan to build a manufacturing facility here in New Zealand."
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MBIE was onside with Davenport's thinking and chipped in with a $500,000 grant to help accelerate the plan for all home-grown production.
The Crown's key interest was in a plant that offered all-onshore manufacturing.
But Davenport also touts that his company's woollen filters and other components are renewable and sustainable, while N95 masks made offshore typically involve a solvent-heavy process as a filter is created from meltblown polymer.
Wool also has the advantage that it has less respiratory resistance. It simple terms, it's easier to breathe through, especially if you're doing anything that strains your lungs.
The new product line is largely automated but has still created a dozen jobs, plus lots of new, licensable intellectual property.
Davenport says key elements are that it's scalable and replicable for further "indigenous production," as he puts it.
Orders are flowing in from the US, Australia, the UK, France, Germany, Israel and Taiwan, Davenport says.
But he also has his eye on the local market. Lanaco was told the public health system was fully stocked, thanks to Whanganui safety gear specialist QSi turning over all of its production to a Covid contract with the Crown (QSi would not comment on its manufacturing capacity or capability, and rumours of a raw materials crunch, referring comment to the Ministry of Health, which acknowledged but did not answer questions).
Although the health system was apparently catered for, Davenport was seeing a lot of demand elsewhere and wanted to ensure an environmentally-friendly offering was in the mix - or just one they could be sure was a quality product amid a growing blizzard of counterfeit or substandard product.
That led to Lanaco's community mask programme, which has seen it team with two dozen small-scale mask makers who have accessed its "open source" (freely-shared) design for a sub-N95 mask.
Lanaco is supplying its Helix filter to local manufacturer Cactus Outdoor for its N95-rated series of masks, which sell for $45 each. Davenport calls Cactus's effort a "semi-fashion range". More utilitarian designs can wholesale for a fraction of that if ordered directly through Lanaco, Davenport says, with pricing depending on the scale of any order.
Nasa contract confirmed
Co-operating with sewing circles on masks sounds very cottage industry, but Lanaco has a decade's worth of experience under its belt supplying clear air products for home ventilation, industry and healthcare - but in 2018 it pitched to provide filtration systems for Orion, Nasa's under-construction crewed vehicle to take humans deeper into space than ever before - to the moon, Mars and asteroids.
In 2018, the Herald reported that Lanaco's Helix filter was being evaluated by Nasa for use in the craft's emergency life-support system, which would be activated in the event of a fire. The Helix filter could be used as a pre-filter layer for emergency personal equipment and cabin air systems, preventing clogging in other filter layers by removing thick contaminants like molten plastic. That contract is now confirmed.
Davenport says Lanaco is the only Orion supplier from outside the US. (In a separate area, Rocket Lab is playing a support role in Nasa's return to the moon.)
Regardless, it's now part of the family, with Nasa's PR department now extolling the virtues of Lanaco's technology for air purification, moisture management and even its ability to help astronauts cope in the event of an onboard fire.
As Davenport told the space agency, "If it's good enough for an astronaut to use it, that's a big builder of confidence," he said.
"It's a door opener."