Beier Group’s local innovation helps South Africa mask up

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced businesses the world over to adapt and evolve. Millions of companies, including ours, have been quick to pivot from ‘business as usual’ – not only to ensure business continuity, but also because they feel called upon to contribute to the fight against this virus by providing the market with critical life-saving supplies.

Like companies around the globe, the Beier group saw this crisis as a chance to step up and help bolster supplies of life-saving equipment.

With a rich South African history stretching back 90 years, the Beier Group has endured and thrived as a company precisely by understanding the need to respond to times of crisis with innovation and agility. We also firmly believe that our own resilience in the face of COVID-19 can help our country to weather its current economic storm – and this, in turn, ensures the resilience of local communities by providing economic growth, employment and essential goods and services.

Across the globe and closer to home, we have seen industries stepping up to help bolster supplies that are critical in fighting the coronavirus – from ventilators and hand sanitisers to personal protective equipment (PPE). It was clear from the outset that the Beier Group was also ideally positioned to make a difference in this arena: BBF Safety Group, a Beier member company, is the largest manufacturer of head-to-toe PPE on the African continent.

A new normal

As South Africa positions itself for economic recovery and businesses and schools across the country adjust to operating in a ‘new normal’, one product has been vital for reducing COVID-19 transmission: the face mask. Ramping up production of this essential product allows our company to demonstrate its commitment to local production and to rerouting our supply chains closer to home.

Since 2015, BBF Safety Group has been actively involved in the localisation of components for its Nikki disposable particulate-filtering FFP2 face mask through supplier partnership developments. Understanding that there would be a dire need for quality masks among the general public as well as in the workplace – especially for those in the industrial and healthcare professions – BBF has managed to upscale its standard mask production capabilities, while localising previously imported components. This not only ensures local production of a vital product, but also allows us to guarantee continued and sustainable employment for staff and workers. 

Between January and May of this year, Nikki mask production increased by 75%, with a further 200% jump in the following two months. To assist in the supply of critical PPE in the country, the Beier Group will continue to increase capacity in the months ahead.

Working with our SMME partners, we’ve not only localised production of the Nikki mask, but also drastically increased our production capacity.

Silvio Ceriani, CEO of BBF Safety Group, says, “South Africans have entrepreneurship and innovation in their blood – we are a nation that doesn’t let much stop us, and during this crisis, we know we’ll see incredible ideas and collaboration coming to the fore to make a positive difference in our country.”

Collaborative innovation

Although BBF Safety Group was already manufacturing masks as a standard line item, the global lockdown meant that one essential filtration material, not yet produced locally, was no longer available for import. With only enough stock remaining for four weeks of production, local manufacturers and government began discussions around the adaptation of materials to bring them in line with filtration specifications, as well as increasing local production capacities to meet new demand. Government provided excellent incentives for this to happen as quickly as possible. The result is that the Nikki FFP2 mask can now be manufactured using 100% local fabrics – an innovation that will continue into the future. 

Beyond localising materials, BBF grew local production by partnering with SMMEs. “With the high demand for FFP2 masks, and BBF already manufacturing at maximum capacity, we reached out to our trusted SMME network chain, which we have developed over years, to set up manufacturing capacity and train their teams to assist with additional mask production in line with the stringent manufacturing procedures,” says Deon van Rensburg, Group Operations Manager of BBF. “With the support of the government, one of our SMMEs was awarded a temporary sales permit to manufacture FFP2 masks within five days – a process that normally takes around two months – and they were quickly operational and able to add to the number of masks made weekly.”

The fast-moving COVID-19 situation required us to respond with agility and speed – without sacrificing any of the design and engineering quality behind our product. Meeting the stringent operational safety requirements as the new production facility took shape was also top of mind.

“Achieving all of this was possible only because we have a solid foundation of working closely with the SMMEs in our supply chain, and the many decades of technical expertise it takes to produce a world-class product even in turbulent circumstances,” van Rensburg adds. “This is why we were able to move quickly to find and capacitate the right partner for this task.”

Responding to demand

The Nikki reusable filtered mask was developed for general population use.

Because government and the World Health Organization have determined that FFP2 masks should be reserved for health workers, BBF Safety Group also developed the NIKKI reusable mask for general population use. The mask is made from breathable cloth fabric and comes with a replaceable Beier Respiratex filter. It’s also washable and can be used up to ten times if cared for properly. 

In creating a mask to service the general population and assist in reducing virus transmission, the team looked at ways to integrate multiple mask layers and a filter. The result is a lightweight product that has improved filtration efficiency and minimal breathing resistance.

Eugene du Toit, Group Innovations Manager of BBF, says, “We have worked tirelessly to create solutions that are relevant and effective. The COVID-19 crisis has given the whole world a new appreciation of the value of life and how important it is to look after ourselves and each other. Our staff have all played an integral part in bringing these new masks and new ways of manufacturing into being and I applaud their efforts and dedication.”