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B.C. company set to begin first Canadian production line of cup-moulded respirator masks

·3 min read

A Coquitlam, B.C., manufacturer that pivoted production from pet beds to personal protective equipment is now set to start rolling out respirator masks after winning a $1-million federal grant.

Novo Textiles has partnered with a company in Windsor, Ont., to develop the first made-in-Canada automated machine to produce cup-shaped, moulded respirator masks — also known as N95 or N99 masks — used in hospitals.

The N95 and N99 respirators are so named because they're designed to filter out at least 95 per cent and 99 per cent of airborne particles, respectively, including pathogens.

Respirator masks or higher level protection is required in hospitals and for medical procedures to prevent the spread of coronavirus and other infections — but they remain in short supply in Canada.

"That's where the greatest global shortage has been and continues to be in terms of PPE," said Novo Textiles owner Jason Zanatta.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

'They created a new standard'

The company's achievement was announced Thursday in a release by Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen), a non-profit, industry-led organization that has awarded more than $27 million in federal government money to manufacturers and innovators under a "Strategic Supply Challenge" to develop cost-competitive critical supplies during the pandemic.

Zanatta said his company invested $2 million and partnered with Windsor-based Harbour Technologies to develop the respirator technology and win a $1 million federal grant as part of the challenge.

Harbour helped make the mask machine, based on Novo's prototype, but all production is being done in B.C.

Two other B.C.-based companies — Inno Foods, a confectionery producer and distributor in Port Coquitlam, and Vitacore in Burnaby — are also producing N95 masks. But Novo is the first in Canada to engineer a way to automate the process and make a cup-moulded version, according to the NGen release.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Zanatta said it took 11 months of work to create the machinery and design for the protective mask.

"I'm very proud of my team and my staff and everyone who came together and worked the hours we worked to get to this point," he said.

Novo Textiles previously made a significant switch in production last spring, moving from pet beds to surgical masks.

Industry experts say Novo Textiles has created a Canadian standard for moulded N95 masks.

"The fact that they created a new standard that sets a benchmark for Canadian manufacturers is amazing," said Marcus Ewert-Johns, president of the B.C. Alliance for Manufacturing.

The masks are now in the final stages of product testing with federal and provincial health authorities.

Novo Textiles aims to turn out up to five million respirator masks a year, alongside 15 million regular surgical masks, when it's up to full production, Zanatta said.

The masks will be supplied to hospitals for now, but Zanatta hopes to get to the point where he can sell them to the public.

He said it's a step toward creating the domestic infrastructure needed to produce Canadian-made protective equipment, so crises like the pandemic don't leave the country relying on supplies from abroad.

"Not having it is a great risk to Canadians, frankly," said Zanatta.