PPE shortage? Mini factories could be the answer

Chloe Kent 9 September 2020 (Last Updated September 9th, 2020 11:00)

Surgical masks have been in short supply since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, as more people than ever don them to protect against the deadly virus. Now, automation organisations Mikron and Festo have come up with a novel solution for mask production, which could help hospitals, shopping centres and schools locally source their own masks and bypass the general supply chain. Chloe Kent finds out more.

PPE shortage? Mini factories could be the answer
Theoretically, if everyone wears a mask in public, asymptomatic Covid-19 carriers are a lot less likely to unwittingly spread the virus around. Credit: Shutterstock

Masks have an important role to play in helping to combat the spread of Covid-19, largely due to the prevalence of asymptomatic carriers who can transmit the virus to others without knowing they’re unwell. An estimated 6% to 18% of those infected will never display symptoms, and those who do go on to show signs of the disease will still experience an incubation period of around five to 14 days where they’re already contagious but don’t yet feel ill.

Routinely identifying all these carriers so they can self-isolate would be an impossible task, but wearing a mask reduces the number of droplets expelled into the atmosphere by an infected person significantly, as well as providing a degree of protection from infection in the first place.

Theoretically, if everyone wears a mask in public, asymptomatic Covid-19 carriers are a lot less likely to unwittingly spread the virus around.

While the surge in mask sales among the general public is indubitably a positive thing in curbing the spread of the virus, the surgical mask supply chain has never had to cope with demand like this before.

Supplies have run low for essential workers, with US nurses telling the Washington Post they’ve been wearing the same N95 masks for weeks on end because they can’t get any other supplies.

Mikron and Festo have now worked together to develop ‘mini factories’, mobile mask production units designed allow hospitals and other healthcare facilities to produce their own masks on-site.

The two companies’ scalable system can produce 50 to 100 face masks per minute and could be used to help medical facilities bypass the disrupted supply chains altogether.

Mini factories situated on-site

The mini factory was developed by Mikron with engineering support from Festo. It fits inside a 20ft shipping container, making it compact enough to situate on-site at a hospital, a shopping centre or a school.

Its integrated air-conditioning system comes with air purification filters, meaning production is even possible even in places with high risk of viral contamination. The system can operate autonomously for more than two hours before human workers need to come in and replace the raw materials and take away the masks, reducing the number of people required to operate the machine and consequently the risk of infection.

Mikron general manager Nils Rödel says: “By using a machine inside of a highcube container, the container is movable to any place all over the world with power and pneumatic connection. The machine is completely independent from the environment around it.”

The automated system produces masks of melt-blown, non-woven fleece made up of many layers of fine fibres, which filter out particles of bacteria and viruses from the air. A nose wire is inserted and ear loops are mounted by the machines. Depending on configuration it can sort the masks into packs of ten or individual masks shrink-wrapped for cleanliness and in printed bags and boxes.

Electric and pneumatic components from Festo ensure the reliable transport of the parts and perform clamping tasks in all process steps, from the three-layer unwinding station, the shaping and folding station for the non-woven fabric and the ultrasonic sealing station for sealing the edges to attaching the ear loops.

Festo sales engineer Johannes Scharfe says: “This machine is able to produce masks for the daily use, but with small design changes it would also be able to manufacture FFP2 masks.”

So far, four of the modules have been sold to customers in Germany in Ireland.

From six months to six weeks

While systems of this scale typically need six months to engineer and design, the pandemic has forced production to go much faster. A group of 20 Mikron designers and fitters concentrated solely on this project and eventually designed a 3D model as the basis for the final system in just six weeks.

Festo’s Automation Suite software was then used to integrate and commission the automation aspect of the system.

Scharfe says: “Fast availability of necessary products can hardly be guaranteed with manual work. Mass products such as MNS masks can only be manufactured in high quantities automatically. In general, of course, the need for automation is increasing, since demographic change and prosperity in many places makes manual labor unattractive in first world countries. Furthermore, automated production also creates the distance between people, which is necessary in this Covid-19 situation.”

Manufacturing masks on-site in an automated mini factory comes with several obvious benefits, whether they’re being produced at a hospital for staff and patients, a shopping centre where they’ll be sold to visitors or provided to students at school.

Scharfe says: “Since it fits into sea freight containers, these containers can also be used as packaging and installation location. Due to the simple design it can be repaired quickly and therefore excels with a high availability. It is relatively cheap and quick to build up which also increases the availability.”

When it comes to PPE, late or failed delivery can cost lives, and eliminating the need to rely on strained supply chains drastically reduces the risk of running out entirely. Installing a mini mask factory sounds like a pretty radical decision, but in a pandemic, it could be the difference between life and death.