By Gregory Daurer | Aug 28, 2022
Protective masks and air filters
There's a reason why Armbrust spotlights the second word in his company's name. While lots of folks talk about returning manufacturing to the United States, Armbrust actually did something about it.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck the U.S. in early 2020, the scramble was on to source protective masks from overseas. But instead of pooling money with other investors to buy a cache of masks from China at inflated prices, Armbrust thought it made more sense to purchase a machine from China to create masks himself in Texas.
Armbrust received his mask-making machine in April 2020. The first masks came off the line in May. "The goal that we set out for the beginning was to get to the capability of making a million masks a day," says Armbrust. "And we got to just that number one day in July of 2020. And that is when the demand started to fall off. The next year we ended up basically cutting our mask operations by about 70 percent."
While sales certainly fell once mandates were lifted and vaccines became available, early backlash against masks themselves also played a role. Armbrust says the State of Texas was "a customer for a while -- but then, because of the political nature of masks, they eventually pulled [out of that]." However, Armbrust still counts "small doctors' offices, dental offices" as regular customers, in addition to the general public.
While Armbrust continues to make surgical masks and KN95 respirators, he has also begun to produce air filters under the brand name Nano.
Armbrust now says his chief goal is to manufacture "one of the best filters in the world that can work in any American house" and will remove 99 percent of virus particles from the air. There's still a ways to go, he concedes. His first air filters have been independently tested to remove around 98.4 percent of viruses -- which still means they're capable of not only pulling mold, dust, and bacteria from the air, but also potentially-deadly COVID-19, influenza, and the Zika virus.
The new air filtration business became possible as a direct result of his mask venture. In early 2021, Armbrust acquired a machine to produce the all-important filter layer, known as meltblown, which is sandwiched within the outer layers of protective face masks. The meltblown is infused with an electrostatic charge, which is what helps to keep viruses trapped in the filter layer. Meltblown is also a component of air filters. Sales began online for Armbrust's air filters in July, and the company's VP of Communications, Tom Cheredar, says, "Our audience is responding pretty nicely."
Production recently relocated from Pflugerville to a new 20,000-square-foot facility in Elgin. "We've actually moved to a new building that we have built ourselves," says Armbrust. At one point the company had 27 mask machines, but Armbrust says, "We now have seven machines that produce more than those original machines because they're way more efficient. I mean, they're literally four times as efficient."
Armbrust began his career as a software innovator in the newspaper automation space before leaping feet first into the world of consumer goods. And he has remained a vocal advocate for returning manufacturing to America.
"I think there's an enormous opportunity to bring manufacturing back here," Armbrust says. "Because there's a lot of support -- not just from both sides of the aisle and the government, but from the American consumer."
Challenges: Being able to plan ahead when it comes to the mask business. "It's definitely one of these boom-and-bust types of cycles," says Armbrust.
Opportunities: Finding "those niche products -- that make sense, that are efficient -- to bring back to the United States [in order to] rebuild our manufacturing culture here," says Armbrust.
Needs: More manufacturing taking place in the United States would increase "stability in the system," affirms Armbrust.