Standing outside the 430,000-square-foot 3M plant in Aberdeen, South Dakota, you can hear the whir of productivity. The Aberdeen plant makes N95 masks which have been one of the most crucial pieces of personal protective equipment for frontline personnel responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Andrew Rehder, the manager of the 3M Aberdeen plant, told Bloomberg Businessweek in a story published in March that the Aberdeen plant has been operating at ‘surge capacity’ since the end of January.
“I just think as we’ve continued to see things spread across the world, it’s put more responsibility on us to make sure that every day and every minute we’re making every mask we can,” Rehder told Bloomberg.
It has also put responsibility on Northern Electric Cooperative to ensure the 3M plant has a consistent and reliable source of power. Northern Electric has served the plant with electricity since it was constructed in 1974.
“We know the 3M plant in Aberdeen is playing a critical role in the response to this global pandemic,” Northern Electric Cooperative CEO/General Manager Char Hager said. “Northern Electric also recognizes that our co-op plays a crucial role in supplying 3M with reliable electricity and we take that responsibility seriously.”
The masks being produced in Aberdeen are being shipped across the country just as fast as they are being manufactured. A jet has been sitting at the Aberdeen Regional Airport during April to transport N95 respirators from the Aberdeen plant directly to areas of the country that need them most.
3M CEO Mike Roman said in a blog post on the company’s website that 500,000 masks were shipped from the Aberdeen plant at the end of March to New York and Seattle. Both of those cities have recorded some of the largest numbers of COVID-19 cases in the country. 3M expects a total global output of 1.1 billion masks this year and they are planning investments in the next 60-90 days that will double that capacity to 2 billion masks globally within the next 12 months.
“We continue to act with urgency to address this crisis from every angle and do all we can to protect our heroic nurses, doctors, and first responders,” Roman said in a statement on the company’s website.
This isn’t the first time the Aberdeen plant has been called upon to increase production during an emergency. The plant has also played a critical role in making masks for the SARS, bird-flu and H1N1 outbreaks, as well as the Mount Saint Helens’ eruption, Hurricane Katrina, and numerous forest fires.
Northern Electric Cooperative has been in contact with local and corporate 3M managers and executives to ensure the Aberdeen plant has the power supply it needs as the company responds to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have communicated our response plans to 3M officials and have assured them that our crews will be ready and available to respond to any emergency or outage,” Hager said. “We have also been in contact with our wholesale power supplier, East River Electric Power Cooperative, and we have told 3M that supplying their plant in Aberdeen with reliable electricity is the top priority for our cooperatives.”
East River Electric has moved a mobile substation to Aberdeen to minimize any disruptions in the event there is an emergency or an outage at the plant.
The Aberdeen 3M plant is the city’s second-largest employer with 650 employees. But, Rehder told Bloomberg Businessweek that the plant now has more than 700 employees who are working around the clock to make sure health care workers and first responders across the country have the masks they need to protect them from COVID-19.
“People are very proud to work in a place that is making respirators, especially with the need that is out there now,” Rehder said.
Hager said the increased production at the plant in Aberdeen and the hard work of 3M employees is a perfect example of rural America stepping up to help the country during this time of uncertainty.
“We are proud of the work they do at the plant and we are proud of our co-op employees who are dedicated to keeping the lights on for 3M and for all our co-op members,” Hager said.
By: Ben Dunsmoor