How Nike Retooled its Supply Chain in Two Weeks to Make High-Tech Face Masks

With a market capitalization of more than $100 billion and annual revenues of nearly $40 billion in fiscal 2019, suffice it to say Nike Inc. sells a lot of things.

But last month, as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the U.S., decimating the economy and creating significant health-care challenges, the Swoosh was tasked with addressing “a list of things money can’t buy,” said Julia Brim-Edwards senior director of Nike Government and Public Affairs.

“It was a list of personal protective equipment urgently needed to protect hospital workers,” she explained. “Because of the level of need and level of shortages, even if you had the money, you couldn’t buy it.”

The Beaverton, Ore.-based athletic company announced early this month that, in response to the global health crisis, its innovation, manufacturing and product teams had developed face shields and powered, air-purifying respirator (PAPR) lenses in partnership with health professionals from Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU).

“What the team at OHSU told us when they shared [the level of need] with us was, ‘we know this is a long shot, but anything you can do to help will save lives,” said Brim-Edwards

Two weeks after it received that call from OHSU, Nike delivered its first shipment of face shields and PAPR lenses to the university on April 3.

While Nike has long staked its claim as an athletic powerhouse whose product is unrelentingly at the forefront of innovation, such a quick turnaround was a sizable undertaking — even for the Swoosh.

“From the beginning, we framed it up very much like an athlete project. The athlete is the healthcare worker — let’s reorient ourselves completely around that,” explained Michael Donaghu, VP of Nike Innovation. “We identified three guardrails: One, materials — what did we already have in our own supply chain so that we wouldn’t be taking away from others? Two, methods of make — what processes could we leverage in-house? And three, holding ourselves accountable to the need to scale.”

It was a firm strategy — aimed at producing a high-functioning shield that also allowed for a simple model of production — but its execution would call for some major out-of-the-box thinking.

“For the face shield prototypes, we grabbed elastic cording and stretchable bands, toggles and endcaps from footwear material and apparel samples,” said Donaghu. “Basically, we were dumpster-diving in sample rooms. People were heading off in all different directions to bring back found objects.”

It was a collaborate effort: As teams at Nike’s Air Manufacturing Innovation “were working out bugs and kinks on the fly, doing in hours and days what would normally take weeks and months,” per Rob Barnette, VP of Nike NXT Digital Innovation, OHSU’s healthcare workers had become field testers of the prototypes and validators of the final equipment.

To date, Nike has shipped 130,000 units of PPE to 20-plus hospitals in Massachusetts, Missouri, Ohio, Oregon and Tennessee.

Looking ahead, the project is likely to have overlap with other corporate social responsibility initiatives at Nike, including its work with sustainability.

“Just like with anything else we make at Air MI, we’re recycling a lot of the unused scrap material that’s left over from this,” said Donaghu. “We’ll regrind it and it’ll go into future products. It’ll work its way into future Nike Air-Soles.”

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