Oregon company set to become a rare domestic N95 mask maker

Eight months and at least $8 million after it began an improbable journey, a Portland-area packaging manufacturer is on the precipice of becoming one of a handful of companies making highly regulated N95 masks in the U.S.

“We led with our hearts and not our heads on this venture,” D6 Inc. CEO Ed Dominion said. “We just wanted to help solve the problem. That’s what our company does.”

On Wednesday, U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley visited D6’s headquarters, just over the Portland city line in Gresham in the industrial zone along the Columbia River, to do a ceremonial ribbon-cutting for its production line.

Dominion credited Wyden and Merkley with helping get federal safety regulators to take seriously D6’s bid to become a major manufacturer of PPE, first with face shields – the company made at least 5 million of them early in the pandemic – then with N95 masks, the tight-fitting, highly effective protective gear relied upon by health-care professionals.

“A lot of other people were saying they could do a thousand a day, or 2,000,” Dominion said. “We we’re coming in for hundreds of thousands to millions. We just needed to get our products registered and approved.”

Dominion said he expects the N95 production and quality-control processes to get final approval from federal regulators before the end of the year. He said D6 has contracts numbering “in the single digits” in place, and several more pending that could be finalized when the company demonstrates an ability to crank out the product at high volume.

In the meantime, the company has a clean room built out and machinery up and running that can churn out masks for general-public use.

D6 has hired 11 people in what it informally calls its “Medical Division,” Dominion said. he anticipates about 25 new hires when production begins in earnest with a capacity of 400,000 to 700,000 masks a week. If more contracts come through, output could increase by 10 to 15 times, requiring more than 200 employees, Dominion said.

Privately held D6 was founded in 2014 and has grown fast; it expected to hit $100 million in revenue in 2020, Dominion said this spring. The company’s calling card is rapid prototype turnaround using 3D printing, and manufacturing that has a heavy recycled-materials component. Much of its work is in food packaging, items like salad and fresh-cut-fruit containers, for example.

When Covid hit, that business almost entirely dried up. With its quick design-to-manufacturing ability, and the need for PPE, masks and shields seemed a natural pivot. But it turned out to be a long, hard road. For months, the company worked and spent heavily on a revolutionary approach to N95 masks that was much less materials intensive than standard styles.

“There was no classification for it,” Dominion said. “We had invented something absolutely beautiful and relevant, but the safety community didn’t know what to do with it.”

By early September, D6 realized that it would take many more months, possibly years, to get that design certified.

“When we hit that wall, we pivoted again, toward making traditional styles,” Dominion said. “We saw a door to the right and we went through that door.”

The company built the medical division into its current facility and is developing a larger space nearby. A big American flag mural, with the inscription, “Made in America & Damn Proud of It!” is painted on the tall wall of the clean room.

Ensuring a supply of domestically made PPE was a big motivation for D6.

“It was eye-opening to know that 99 percent of all respirators were coming offshore,” Dominion said. “That was unbelievable for something that’s so important to taking care of our people.”

Offshoring is often seen as the only way to be price competitive, but Dominion thinks D6 will be fine. The company came in under offshore competitor bids by $2 per unit in contract solicitations, Dominion said, offering early discounts to get multiyear deals with what he called “an accelerating price scale.”

“We have to have contracts,” he said. “We need to be able to know that we’re going to be kicking these things out into the future and that we’ll have clients for years on out. That’s how we’re approaching this.”