These photos show the round plastic pieces that Superfeet is 3D printing. Along with its sister company Flowbuilt, Superfeet is creating PAPR hoods for use by medical professionals. (Courtesy photos/Superfeet)

It is building, with partners, respirator hoods for health workers 

  FERNDALE — Personal protective equipment is in short supply nationwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Ferndale-based shoe insole company Superfeet is doing something about it.

  Last week, in conjunction with sister company Flowbuilt Manufacturing, Superfeet began producing respirator masks for local healthcare workers and hospitals. The goal is to produce 30,000 masks using a uniquely suited 3D printing technology.

  About a week earlier, Superfeet had put out a call to action to the local community. The company’s doors were opened and its 3D printers were allowed to be used in producing personal protective equipment.

  “We heard from a slew of hospitals, as well as the media, that people were looking for PPE equipment and especially for PAPR hoods,” said Amy Olive, Superfeet’s brand marketing manager.

  PAPR stands for “powered air purifying respirator,” an essential piece of protective equipment used by medical professionals to keep themselves safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. These hoods have specific components that Superfeet’s 3D printers can be used to make, including a plastic port on the back.

  Superfeet is now printing the port and assembling the hoods with the help of Washington-based Pioneer Aerofab, which specializes in making airplane interiors. Pioneer is providing the hood portion of the respirator.

  Ordinarily, these 3D printers are used to print specialized insoles. Customers can go in-person to retailers such as Bellingham’s Fairhaven Runners and use a Superfeet machine, which scans their feet and performs a gait analysis. Superfeet then prints a custom insole using that data.

  “In this scenario, all of our retail locations are closed,” Olive said. “We don’t have any orders coming in for 3D printed insoles.”

  Superfeet is fully employee-owned, and the company decided as a whole that it would not be laying anybody off during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the lack of custom retail orders left Superfeet’s warehouse staff without their normal tasks to perform during the work day.

  “We’ve been doing some kind of creative things to ensure that the layoff situation isn’t going to happen,” Olive said.

  Printing and assembling PAPR hood components aligned perfectly with Superfeet’s everyday goals.

  “It fit right in line with the Superfeet brand,” Olive said. “As a brand, we’re people first. We’re 100-percent employee owned and we give back to the community.”

  The shift to creating masks instead of insoles was fast, but it wasn’t overnight, Olive said. It took about a week after Superfeet opened its doors to the medical community for the company to get up and running creating PAPR hoods. They had to make sure the product was working properly and up to the standards of healthcare professionals, as well as train Superfeet staff on how to make the masks.

  “30,000 masks is a lot of masks,” Olive said. “We’ve had to really set up a process and a way to kind of move those through the system.”

  The 30,000 masks are all spoken for by nine hospitals in northwest Washington. Olive said Superfeet believes it could possibly create even more and may work toward a total of 60,000.

  “We started conversations with local hospitals and healthcare workers last week and discovered a massive need for PPE, as demand has skyrocketed over the past few weeks,” said John Rauvola, CEO and president at Superfeet. “You can feel the pride our team of employee-owners takes in being able to create something tangible to help combat this pandemic and better protect our community’s first line of defense.”