Processing Your Payment

Please do not leave this page until complete. This can take a few moments.

Updated: May 19, 2020 Town Profile: Tolland

Tolland’s Gerber helps clients pivot production to much-needed pandemic protective gear

Photo | Contributed An employee uses a Gerber Paragon cutter, which is increasingly being used to make face masks and other personal protective equipment.

Amid the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, consumers aren’t shopping for clothing like they usually do, which has reduced order volumes for makers of garments and other textile products.

Tolland-based Gerber Technology is helping those manufacturers make the best of a difficult economic situation by providing them products and services to retool production lines so they can make in-demand personal protective equipment, or PPE.

Gerber sells software, cutting machinery and other technology that’s used by clothing makers and manufacturers that make furniture, airplane and car interiors and other products.

“If you make high-end suits, there’s not a big demand for that out there right now,” said Leonard Marano, Gerber’s vice president of product management and marketing for automation solutions. “They have idle capacity.”

Photo | Contributed
A fabric containing plastic is laid out on a Gerber cutter. Cutting PPE materials can be tricky because they can melt if subjected to too much heat, so Gerber recently began offering conversion kits that include a chiller to keep the blade cool.

The U.S. has been heavily reliant on Asia for sourcing PPE, but with the virus originating there, it’s created a shortage of masks, gowns and other protective gear.

“It became evident early on that there would be a national shortage of PPE,” Marano said.

That’s forced state governments and healthcare organizations to forage for their own supplies.

It’s also pushed some U.S. factories to retool their production lines to fill the sudden need.

Not all of them can do it easily on their own, as PPE manufacturing is complicated, so Gerber has stepped in.

Marano said the company has now helped more than 1,400 of its customers around the world — including a handful in Connecticut — switch over to PPE production.

Much of that equipment is going to hospitals and other healthcare facilities, he said.

In Connecticut, manufacturers that have switched over to PPE production with Gerber’s help include Commercial Sewing, Franklin Products and Torrington Distributors, all located in Torrington, Marano said. There’s also Joseph Abboud’s Boston-area factory, Rochester, N.Y.-based apparel maker Hickey Freeman and California clothing maker Bella Canvas, which is using Gerber equipment to produce millions of masks for first responders.

[Read more: HBJ examines developments in CT towns, cities]

Tapping its vast network of industry relationships, Gerber has also helped its customers source fabrics and other necessary materials.

Customers are telling the company that PPE will be a permanent part of their businesses moving forward, even once COVID-19 infections are reduced to more manageable levels, Marano said.

Gerber, which already had about 300 customers involved in PPE in some form before the pandemic, is following suit. Marano said the company now considers PPE to be a core market segment, to ensure the country is better prepared for the next pandemic.

“If everybody had converted earlier on and had a bit more foresight, I don’t think we would have gotten into the backlog of PPE issues that we had,” he said.

Warning Signs

Gerber is a key employer in Tolland, a small bucolic town of 15,000 people in the shadow of UConn’s Storrs campus.

The company, which is owned by New York private equity firm American Industrial Partners, employs about 300 people at its 24 Industrial Park Road West headquarters, where it consolidated its Connecticut operations about a decade ago.

Gerber is among Tolland’s five largest employers and one of the town’s largest property taxpayers.

But of course, the company is a global operator.

In fact, it initially received inquiries from Asian manufacturers looking to retool their production lines to help boost that continent’s PPE stockpile amid the pandemic (Gerber has a development center in Shanghai).

By the time similar hails started coming from U.S. producers, Gerber had already formed an internal team of 20 top executives and experts to respond. They developed a prepackaged set of PPE cutting patterns and equipment settings to help manufacturers get up and running. The aim is to help them do it efficiently, without wasting excess material through trial-and-error.

Gerber also recently began selling conversion kits to help end users further improve PPE production and capacity. Marano declined to provide the kit’s price, which also includes consulting services.

The kits help overcome some of the technical hurdles to making PPE, which involves layering different materials together. In addition, the fabrics used can contain polyester, making them challenging to cut.

The cutting knife must be kept cool, or the material can melt together, wasting time and resources. Keeping the knife cool can be achieved by using the right speed settings and chilling the blade with cold air during the cutting process.

Gerber’s conversion kits also help keep materials sturdy during the cutting process.

Sign up for Enews


Order a PDF