From emergency production for UZA to the industrial scale
UAntwerp lays foundations for producing specialised face masks in Belgium
Major shortage of personal protective equipment: it has been a recurring theme throughout the corona crisis. But from now on, UZA healthcare workers will have access to a steady supply of FFP2 masks, manufactured in the heart of Antwerp by product developers at the University of Antwerp.
In early March, even before the lockdown began in Belgium, Prof. Erika Vlieghe (UZA/UAntwerp) sounded the alarm. The current chair of the GEES (the group of experts for the exit strategy) warned that our country was facing an impending shortage of the advanced FFP2 and FFP3 masks, which are used primarily in the healthcare sector. Her alarm did not go unheard by the product developers at the University of Antwerp. Jouke Verlinden, Stijn Verwulgen and Regan Watts, along with a number of PhD students, took immediate action at the Antwerp Design Factory (ADF).
‘In the ADF, we’ve been working for more than a year on pre-incubation projects, which have a unique signature in Europe’, explains Jouke Verlinden. ‘In the middle of the city, with its ties to the worlds of high-tech, fashion and the medical and human sciences, the ADF is working on people-oriented innovation. These efforts have already resulted in partnerships with Flanders Make, UZA, the Design Sciences Hub, the Province of Antwerp and many international projects both in Europe and beyond. Central topics include Industry 4.0, circular design, healthcare technology and social innovation’.
Many different types
The Antwerp Design Factory was the ideal breeding ground for a project addressing the need for personal protective equipment in the healthcare sector.
‘There are many different types of face mask on the market’, observes Stijn Verwulgen. ‘The people at UZA gave us a few examples of existing types of masks they liked the most. That was our starting point. We experimented with filters, 3D printers and laser cutters. Contacts were established with multiple partners, including from the industrial world. We were working day and night, often seven days a week. After a time, we had a prototype that would meet medical requirements while also being comfortable and producible’.
Support from Carrefour
In the meantime, the Antwerp-based product developers continued to tinker with new types. They relocated from their studio on Ambtmanstraat to the Paardenmarkt in order to expand their production lines, so that they would be able to provide UZA with FFP2 and FFP3 masks as soon as possible. Their investments began to add up. Just then, the designers received an important boost from Carrefour. This support allowed them to make additional investments in materials and machines.
This COVID-19 crisis has clearly highlighted the importance of having enough masks for the population and for hospitals’, notes François-Melchior de Polignac, the CEO of Carrefour Belgium. ‘This was new for Belgium. Carrefour is delighted to be able to provide financial support to this project for the local production of masks. It has become obvious that it is important to have high-quality face masks available quickly and locally. Carrefour is therefore glad to support this extremely useful project during the current health crisis. Moreover, this initiative fits perfectly within the Carrefour mission: ‘Making the best available to everyone’.
The efforts paid off. ‘In May, we were able to deliver the first load of face masks to the hospital’, recounts Regan Watts. ‘Our emergency production line has now been fine-tuned: the shape of the mask is cut out automatically using a Trotec laser cutter. The two layers of polypropylene are fixed together with a filter between them using ultrasonic seams, thereby eliminating the need for holes in the mask. Several manual interventions are still needed in the process though, including the application of the nose bridge and the elastic strings’.
The production line can accommodate 10 people, each producing one mask every 20 seconds. It is a nice example of cooperation between the social economy and the university: the product developers are also receiving assistance from the WERMINAL sheltered workshops in Merksem.
‘They are manufacturing a limited volume of high-quality, comfortable masks in order to meet UZA’s needs’, Jouke Verlinden explains. ‘We received a German certificate of conformity for our masks. At this time, we might be the only place in Belgium where these types of specialised masks are being produced. We are able to produce more than enough to meet the needs of UZA for these items during the current pandemic. It’s insurance for the future’.
Designed in Antwerp
The hospital is happy with the masks. Jo Swartenbroekx, the chief pharmacist at UZA, says: ‘In the past months, we have invested a large amount of time and energy in supplying safe and comfortable FFP2 masks. We often had to reject masks from China, because they did not meet our standards. This production provides us with a suitable alternative, and it will allow us to prepare for a possible second wave of COVID-19 infections’.
Regan Watts, Jouke Verlinden and Stijn Verwulgen.
The story of the face masks is just the beginning of much more. The prototype that was developed forms the basis for Medimundi, the spin-off that the University of Antwerp is establishing in partnership with Cartamundi. In the future, Medimundi will produce face masks on an industrial scale. This will mark the first time that the production of face masks has been strategically anchored in Belgium. In the meantime, the Antwerp-based product developers are working on the further development of face masks, which are a product that calls for far-reaching diversification.
‘A mask has to fit comfortably, the wearer has to be able to breathe properly, and the mask has to fit properly, regardless the shape of the face’, explains Watts. ‘A construction worker needs a different type of mask from a physiotherapist or an electrician. For this reason, we are working on a project which focuses on proper fit, which will make it possible for us to create masks that are designed in Antwerp. The Antwerp Design Factory is also working hard to develop designs for extended use, re-use and recycling. It is obviously not ideal to make millions of masks each day, only to throw them away immediately. We are trying to develop a circular solution that prioritises both people and planet’.
If you have any questions about the face masks, please contact the company by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.