Success story

"Production for medical face masks started with TMC knowledge and expertise"

The Dutch company VDL has installed four manufacturing lines for medical face masks. Yesterday was the official kick-off for the production of these mouth masks. Three TMC Employeneurs contributed to the project by offering knowledge, ideas and expertise in mechanical engineering.


When the corona pandemic broke out last March, Employeneur Antonio Garcia Rubio immediately wanted to help. He decided to launch eight new projects at the TMC Enterpreneurial Lab dedicated to fight Covid-19. One of the projects was the creation and large scale production of high quality and user friendly medical face masks. Antonio and some of his worldwide TMC colleagues had interviewed health care professionals at hospitals and ICUs and discovered that they suffered from the current medical face mask design. Their glasses would fog over, the elastic band hurt their ears and wearing the masks for many hours made breathing difficult, to name a few of their complaints.

Antonio was working at VDL and the company had plans for the large scale manufacturing of medical face masks. After VDL’s main office bought four machines and assigned the project to the department VDL ETG Projects, Antonio approached them to offer the knowledge gained from his TEL project. VDL agreed and Antonio became the full time systems architect for the project. Two TMC colleagues were later hired to the project to strengthen the team.

To VDL the project was challenging enough, says VDL’s project manager Marco van Schaik. “When we decided to start this project last May we only had four machines built by the company Duflex, but we had no face mask design, no material, no product location and no workers. Also it was the first medical product VDL was going to develop all by itself. However, we wanted to produce the face masks as soon as possible.”

Armed with the knowledge gained from the hospital interviews, the team at VDL together with design company Panton designed a new medical face mask. Special foam was installed inside the nose piece to absorb the heat of the breath, thus preventing doctors and nurses glasses from fogging over. Instead of elastics behind the ears, an elastic band was designed that fit behind the head. And to improve breathability an extra stiffening layer was added to the mask to prevent it from collapsing into the nose and mouth while breathing. The most difficult part was applying the right charge to the electrostatic filter that blocks the virus particles, since slight changes in humidity or temperature impact the charge. Antonio: “We call it ‘black magic’ in the field because it’s so hard to track and maintain.”

The first prototypes were tested doctors and nurses who liked the improvements. The new face mask was more comfortable and made breathing and talking much easier without compromising filtering efficiency. “I honestly think that from the performance point of view our masks are one of the best on the market,” Antonio says not without pride.

Employeneur Otto van Uffelen was hired to the project to optimise the machines to produce face masks at a speed of 720 masks per machine per hour. “The machines are very sensitive,” says Otto. “They are fed by five different rolls of fabric that need very precise spacing. Changes in circumstances like temperature will slightly stretch or shrink the fabrics web, which causes the face masks to run out of spec. We’re constantly working on improving the stability of the machines.”

Employeneur Kristien Pas (Mechanical) was hired as technical lead. She was responsible for planning, structure and making sure the team of ten VDL employees assigned to the project was functioning well. To Kristien the biggest challenge was time pressure. “It’s a pandemic, so you want it to be finished yesterday. But you’re dealing with a medical product. Complying with all the rules while maintaining speed at the same time is hard.”

Nevertheless the project was finished in several months. The team then only had to wait for the medical certification, that finally came in mid December. “All in all the project has moved incredibly fast,” says Marco van Schaik from VDL. “I’m extremely pleased with it, as is the VDL board.”

VDL is expecting to produce 10 to 13 million face masks per year on the new production line. The first will be delivered in January 2021. According to Marco van Schaik the contribution of knowledge and expertise by the TMC Employeneurs was crucial. “TMC has given the project a tremendous boost. The running start from the TEL lab really helped. And the Employeneurs know what they’re doing. It felt like working with our own people.”

Kristien Pas says the face mask manufacturing line has been the most fun project of her career. “We were involved right from the very first spec until the end result. I also loved the fact that it was a consumer product that was really being used. It’s different from designing a small part of an industrial machine nobody ever gets to see.”

What spiked Antonio’s motivation was the fact that the project has such a wide societal impact. “The pressure didn’t come form management or the business side, it came from ourselves. We wanted to make this project successful because we really want to help the health care sector. So definitely the motivation was very personal.”

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