How these $3,000 hazmat suits are made to keep up with pandemic demand

  • Beginning in March, Kappler saw a 25% jump in demand for its hazmat suits, driven by doomsday preppers, the medical field, and a fear of the coronavirus among the general public.
  • The biggest jump in orders came for Kappler’s newest product: child-sized hazmat suits.
  • Business Insider visited the Guntersville, Alabama, factory to see how Kappler makes its $US3,000 hazmat suits despite pandemic demand, staffing issues, and a COVID-19 outbreak in the factory.
  • This footage was filmed in January 2020.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: With a pandemic, wildfires, and international tension, this company saw a 25% jump in demand in 2020. Its specialty? Hazmat suits, even for kids.

Laura Kappler-Roberts: Whenever there’s unrest throughout the world, we do see an increase in demand.

Narrator: Kappler sells $US3,000 fully encapsulated suits. And the company went from taking 737,000 orders in 2019 to over a million by early November 2020.

Dennis Sanders: The coverage that the coronavirus has received has elevated the demand for protective clothing in general.

Narrator: Despite an uptick in orders, Kappler has faced staffing issues, order backlogs, and a COVID-19 outbreak of its own.

Sanders: We’ve been in a situation for well over a year with no inventory whatsoever. I mean, all of our stock has been wiped out. Our products being in such high demand that we’ve not been able to keep up with it.

Narrator: We visited the Kappler manufacturing plant in Guntersville, Alabama, back in January to see how it’s bringing protective fashion to life. Kappler began making protective garments back in 1976. The company’s suits range from level D, which protects against dirt and grease, to level A, a fully encapsulated suit that protects against hazardous materials such as liquids and vapors. All of the suits from D to A protect against COVID-19, although Dennis says the level A ones are…

Sanders: Way overkill for trying to protect from the coronavirus.

Narrator: Yet, sales were up for Kappler suits across the board.

Sanders: It’s not surprising because the concern with hazardous materials has been elevated drastically with the exposure to COVID.

Narrator: Keeping out all that bad stuff starts with the fabric.

Sanders: Our fabric has multiple layers. We outsource the production of that, but we have the recipes to put all those layers together.

Kappler-Roberts: We are developing the fabrics, engineering in the protective properties into those fabrics.

Sanders: It comes back to us in roll-goods form. We then put patterns over the top of those layers and we cut those out.

Narrator: That cut fabric heads to one of 95 sewers and sealers on the manufacturing floor.

Sanders: They have to first sew it together. It’s then put through a unique process we call heat sealing, where they’re taking tape that has those comparable layers of barrier properties, and that seam tape is heat sealed over the outside of the seam on that garment. We then turn it inside out and we seal the inside.

Narrator: Next, workers attach all the hardware, thread, buttons, and fabric fasteners. And finally it heads to quality control.

Sanders: We use a unique device, a pressure test kit that monitors to see if there’s any pressure decay, if there’s any pinholes, leaks, anything like that, that might be coming from the garment.

Narrator: Compared to a white gown that may take minutes to make, it could take hours to put together one level A vapour-protective hazmat suit. The company says its first real uptick in demand came in 2014 with the outbreak of Ebola.

Kappler-Roberts: We took more orders in two days for one particular product than we had taken in two years. And it completely overwhelmed, obviously, our manufacturing.

Narrator: Normally, Kappler sells its suits to the military, law enforcement, and fire departments. But this year, with an increased need for PPE…

Sanders: The medical side of our business is up close to 70% from previous years.

Narrator: Driven by the fear of the coronavirus, the demand for the general public has also taken off.

Sanders: The issue, though, is the heightened concern that the next particular virus might be more deadly.

Narrator: Kappler has partnered with MIRA Safety to manufacture suits for the general public. The newest product in the partnership? Child-sized hazmat suits.

Sanders: The children’s side of that has really elevated because there’s been more and more concern.

Narrator: As customer interest grew, the company introduced two sizes for kids.

Kappler-Roberts: When they’re making the smaller suits, the looks that the operators give the suit, and to imagine a situation in which a child would have to wear that.

Narrator: And the sector for children’s suits has grown over 500% this year.

Sanders: That’s every parent’s worst nightmare, is they have got something for themselves but nothing to protect their children.

Narrator: But with the influx of orders and new product lines, the company hasn’t been able to manufacture suits fast enough. Even with workers putting in overtime, staffing was an issue.

Sanders: February, March time frame, we actually had a couple of plant shutdowns because we had somebody with the virus.

Narrator: It’s caused a 50% turnover rate among employees of the plant.

Kappler-Roberts: Since January, we have hired around 65 production operators, but on the same hand we’ve had around 50 leave us.

Sanders: The training curve to do one of those $US3,000 suits is probably six months. And unfortunately that’s led to some cancellations, too. We’ve had probably 15, 20% of orders that were cancelled because of, you know, the longer lead time.

Narrator: Had it been able to meet demand this year, Dennis estimates the company could have doubled its sales from 2019. To help scale up to meet capacity in the future, Kappler’s engineers are looking to semi and full automation.

Kappler-Roberts: We have got to increase our capacity to really bolster our ability to produce at high volumes when needed but to also be able to scale back when needed and not incur a lot of overhead.

Narrator: Because Kappler doesn’t expect demand to decrease anytime soon.

Sanders: Just based on the fact that the cold weather seems to be causing a tremendous elevation in the virus, I would expect that that’s gonna increase the demand.

Kappler-Roberts: Unfortunately, our increase in demand can be tied to something tragic. Hurts your heart a little bit, but you hope you are providing something that would protect someone in such a situation.