CHATHAM, NJ - When Chatham resident Bill Heap heard that Hanes Corporation was planning to battle the Coronavirus pandemic by mass-producing masks, he teamed up with business partner Phil Pantusco to get involved.

Heap and Pantusco have over 90 years of combined experience providing the apparel industry with machinery and labor-saving devices. When regular business slowed down, and high demand for facemasks became apparent in early March, the two decided to do something about it. 

The opportunity to come up with a mass-production plan presented itself when they heard that the Hanes Corporation was gearing up to produce facemasks and other personal protective equipment.

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“We had done some R & D work for Hanes in the past, so we gave them a call to discuss a design concept that we had in mind,” Heap said. “Most facemask production equipment is fully automated. Rolls of media are loaded onto unwinds and no human hands are involved until the surgical masks are put into boxes.”

Pantusco had some previous experience providing folding equipment to the medical industry, so they both had a good idea of the production basics.  The automated equipment normally used is very expensive and the lead times are long.  The design concept involved components that they had on the shelf – including sewing machines and pulling devices.

“Philip is very good with multi-needle machines that have wide needle spaces," Heap said. "Since the masks are a disposable item, we thought we could substitute sewing units for the ultrasonic equipment that is generally used to fasten the filter media together."

Hanes approved the design, and they finished the prototype within two weeks. 

Chatham's Bill Heap holds an iron on the output side to maintain the integrity of the pleat during production

Hanes will provide their own unwind system on the input end and on the output side they will feed the product into a rotary heat press and then cut it to length in a strip cutter. The multi-needle machine shown in the video below has a needle space of 3-1/4” and was originally built the Prazak Company in Elizabeth, New Jersey in the 1940’s or ‘50’s. 

“Prazak’s craftsmanship was superb, and this was a time before CNC equipment was available," Heap said. "All machining was dialed in by hand.  We took the machine out of our warehouse and rebuilt it to original specifications and it will hum along at 2000 rpm all day long.  Since we are more comfortable with mechanical motions, we designed it using one motor to control all rotations and used timing belts and eccentrics for synchronization and adjustment.  We could have used electronic controls, but simplicity ruled the day.”  

A secondary operation sews up both sides at once. The cut parts are introduced into a dual timing belt conveyor and pulled through the machine as fast as the operator can load them. Earpieces are added at another station. 

“This is not nearly as fast as the fully automated equipment, but it was an 80% solution available in a short timeframe,” Heap said. 

According to Heap’s calculations for the first operation - at 2000 rpm and 8 stitches per inch (one rotation is one stitch).

"The machine will produce 400 yards an hour less loading time. At 7.5 inches per mask that is roughly 16,000 masks in an 8-hour day - again less downtime," he said.

The machine can run 24 hours a day, if necessary.  The equipment is now up and running at Hanes in North Carolina.