Cycling industry pivots to COVID-19 protective equipment production
One year ago, the team at Kitsbow, a high end cycling apparel company from Sonoma County, California, decided to relocate the brand and all its operations to a place with a lower cost workforce. They selected Appalachia and landed in Old Fort, North Carolina.
Kitsbow raised the capital to build a factory, and five months ago they moved 90 sewing machines, three cutting machines and 27 employees into a state-of-the-art facility with vertically integrated design capability. The goal? That 90 percent of their mountain bike, gravel, urban, and casual apparel would be made in America.
Today, the company will begin production on 26,000 face masks and face shields, with a backlog of orders that shows no signs of abating.
Kitsbow’s CEO David Billstrom said that the company has gone from designing baggies and jerseys to making personal protective equipment (PPE) in an incredibly narrow timeframe. Last Thursday, Kitbow’s founder Zander Nosler received an email for Stanford alumni that included a DIY face shield design. He shared it with Billstrom, and things quickly snowballed from there.
“I just happened to have been a first responder for the last 38 years, so I contacted a couple buddies and we thought it would be kinda a sideline project,” Billstrom said. “But they said send as many as you can, as fast as you can. So we went ahead and bought the material on Thursday that we needed for the face shields. We have a computer-controlled fabric cutter, and computer-controlled laser cutter, and are able to make all the parts in just a few hours for a thousand face shields.”
Billstrom shared a few photos of the factory and the workers with the newly-produced face shields on Facebook, and the calls started coming in. Meanwhile, the former firefighter and EMT was already thinking ahead.
“While the production team was making face shields, the product design team was prototyping face masks,” Billstrom said.
Because of Kitsbow’s pivot to a vertically integrated facility, they are able to take a new product from conception to a retailer in four weeks. For the factory workers who were called in to work on Saturday, the turnaround for getting PPE out of the factory would be even quicker. Since Thursday, Kitsbow has also hired a medical advisor to help tweak the design and consult on appropriate materials.
Kitsbow is one of a handful of cycling industry players who have halted normal production to address the worldwide shortage of PPE. Large European companies like Italy’s Santini and Belgium’s Vermarc Sport pivoted to face mask production last week and have focused distribution to front line providers in their home communities. Kitsbow’s products will similarly first be distributed to frontline healthcare workers in North Carolina.
Isaac Howe, co-founder of Orucase, says that the bike bag manufacturer will begin producing both medical and consumer-grade face masks in their Mexico facility, and focus distribution on medical workers in both Mexico and the US. The company will use the proceeds of the consumer masks to facilitate additional production of masks for medical workers.
“For every mask we sell, we will be able to provide up to 20 masks to those in need,” Howe said.
While Orucase has said that the company will have the capability to make up to 500,000 medical masks per week, and Santini will produce 10,000 per day for the hard-hit areas around its Bergamo facility, it’s not just industry giants who have felt called to help during the crisis.
Ben Lewis, who runs Pinch Flat Designs out of Bend, Oregon, normally makes hip packs for mountain bikers. “Right now,” Lewis says, “and for as long as I need too, I’m making face masks that comply with the CDC protocol of 100 percent cotton construction.”
Yesterday, Lewis spent the day on his bike, delivering masks to first responders and healthcare workers around Bend.
A desire to help and the ability to do so will likely inspire many more in the cycling industry to pivot production to begin manufacturing tools that are vitally needed to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“It’s just the right thing to do,” Billstrom said.