While health care workers worldwide respond to the coronavirus outbreak, hundreds of employees at DuPont’s Spruance manufacturing plant in Chesterfield County are working to ramp up production of a material that helps shield those front-line fighters from the virus.
The Spruance plant on Jefferson Davis Highway makes Tyvek, a water and microbial-resistant material used in a variety of applications, including protective garments worn by first responders and medical professionals.
“Tyvek today is clearly on the front lines of combating the coronavirus outbreak,” said John Richard, vice president and general manager for DuPont Safety, the business division that includes Tyvek.
“Our material is used to make protective garments that provide unparalleled levels of protection, durability and comfort for first responders and front-line workers in this virus outbreak,” he said.
Many people recognize Tyvek from construction sites as a “homewrap” material that provides an air and water barrier for buildings. Tyvek also is used prominently in health care for sterile packaging of single-use disposable medical devices. Some envelopes also contain Tyvek, as well as those hard-to-tear wrist bands that people wear at health care facilities or some events.
There are numerous varieties of Tyvek apparel, and the largest market for Tyvek garments is protective gear for industrial workers especially in the oil and gas, chemicals and pharmaceuticals industries.
Recently, though, DuPont has been responding to a surge in demand for Tyvek apparel because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Mostly because of the pandemic, production of Tyvek has increased about 20% so far this year compared with the same period last year.
Demand for protective garments first surged in China, where the outbreak started.
“Within the first week of the response, we were supplying 30 times more into China than we typically do,” said David Domnisch, global business director for DuPont’s personal protection business.
While demand has since diminished a bit in China, it has spiked in numerous other countries as the virus has spread.
“We continue to see unprecedented levels of demand,” Domnisch said.
DuPont has dealt with demands on the Tyvek supply chain in previous outbreaks of infectious disease, most notably the Ebola virus crisis in western Africa in 2014 and 2015, which prompted the company to make production capacity upgrades.
“Periodically, we have these events — whether it is Ebola, avian flu or SARS — and we see these gigantic spikes in demand,” Domnisch said. “We have a crisis management team that we activate, and we manage through that by making capacity decisions and ramping up as quickly as we can.”
“Over time, we have made significant investments in the agility of our supply chain, which allowed us in this case [with coronavirus] to triple our global capacity for garment production in a matter of weeks,” Domnisch said.
The company now has the capacity to make Tyvek material for about 200 million protective garments a year. While the virus has created global supply disruptions, Domnisch said DuPont has been able to work with government agencies around the world to keep supplies flowing.
“We have been very successful so far,” he said. “We have had zero sustained supply disruptions.”
DuPont reported about $21.5 billion in total revenue for 2019, but it does not publicly disclose its sales specifically for Tyvek. Sales were $5.2 billion in its safety and construction business unit in 2019, the most recent full year for which results have been announced.
Besides the Spruance plant, DuPont makes Tyvek at a factory in Luxembourg in Europe. In 2018, the company announced plans to invest $400 million to expand Tyvek capacity at the Luxembourg plant.
The Spruance plant is the largest factory operated by Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont.
It also remains the largest production site for Tyvek.
The plant manufactures several high-performance materials — Kevlar, Nomex and Tyvek.
Perhaps the best known is Kevlar, the key material used in bullet-resistant vests worn by law enforcement and military personnel.
DuPont has invested more than $250 million to upgrade and improve manufacturing operations since 2015, said David Johnson, the plant’s site manager.
Most recently, DuPont announced in January that it will invest more than $75 million to modernize and expand its manufacturing and technology presence at the Spruance plant. The expansion is expected to create about 60 jobs over the next several years.
The Spruance plant, which opened in 1929, operates around the clock and is currently hiring, Johnson said, but it is not facing a shortage of workers in Tyvek production.
About 2,200 people work at the Spruance plant, including about 1,800 DuPont employees and several hundred contractors. Of those, about 400 work in Tyvek production.
“The people here that make Tyvek are really proud of what we do,” said Courtney Lalich, who has worked as a performance engineer in Tyvek production for 12 years. “We know it is protecting people around the world.”
“I started [working with] Tyvek in 2008 and I stayed because I like the people and the product,” said Lalich, who studied chemistry and chemical engineering at Virginia Tech. “What we do here really does matter — not just the protective apparel but the medical packaging that we make.”
The Tyvek garments themselves are not made at the Spruance plant.
Instead, the factory produces Tyvek material in sheets that are rolled and then cut to specifications and shipped to a network of garment manufacturers that make the end products.
Tyvek is made from high-density polyethylene. The material was discovered in 1955 as “a chance occurrence” by a DuPont researcher, Jim White, who noticed a white foam coming out of a pipe during an experiment, according to a history of Tyvek on the company’s website.
“Over the next 10 years, our scientists and engineers figured out how to make it into a fiber that we could control,” John Richard said. “From there, we were off and running, finding end-use applications like construction or garments or packages or medical device protection.”
The way the fiber is compressed and laid into a sheet form gives Tyvek its unique properties.
“The laying of those fibers and the compression of the material into a sheet creates a very tortuous path for bacteria, viruses and other particulates to penetrate through the material,” Richard said.
“It is extremely lightweight,” he said. “It is highly protective and very durable. That combination of features is what allows the versatility for a variety of end-use applications.”