Well protected: Innovative machine concept for medical face masks

Masks protect – that is one thing all experts agree on. In particular, residents in nursing homes, clinical staff and patients, but also relatives, should wear an FFP2 mask when in close contact with other people. To ensure that sufficient masks can be produced, correspondingly powerful machines are needed.

The masks come off the production line almost every second: The machine which is currently being prepared for delivery produces up to 60 FFP2 masks per minute. Achim and Stefan Meissner are extremely satisfied with this result. The two brothers have been managing the machine and plant manufacturing company Schott & Meissner for three years and have developed this new type of machine to market readiness in just four months. It all began in March 2020, as Achim Meissner recalls: "We started receiving enquiries practically every day asking if we could supply machines for the production of FFP1 and FFP2 masks." At that time, however, the company did not have such a machine in its portfolio: "Before the pandemic arrived there was no demand for mask machines. That all changed at a stroke. Nevertheless, we initially had to consider whether we wanted to enter this market. But we quickly realized that we had the ideal prerequisites for the situation."

Schott & Meissner Maschinen- und Anlagenbau GmbH

Schott & Meissner Maschinen- und Anlagenbau GmbH is one of the leading manufacturers of heat treatment lines and bonding equipment for nonwoven fabrics. Since 1986, the family-owned company in Blaufelden near Stuttgart, Germany, has been developing and building customized machines tailored to the specific requirements of clients from all over the world. Quality, reliability, innovative strength and expertise characterize the work of the engineers and specialists from development through to commissioning. For three years now, management of the company has been in the hands of the second generation of the family: Achim and Stefan Meissner continue the tradition of German engineering at Schott & Meissner together with a workforce that now numbers 80.

The challenge: development time

The ideal prerequisites because the engineers and specialists at Schott & Meissner in Blaufelden, Germany, are true specialists in nonwoven materials: "Our focus is on machines for processing spunbond and meltblown nonwovens, i.e. the material that is also used as the filter layer in face masks. Our machines are used in various industries, ranging from the production of nonwovens for hygiene products through to filter systems," explains Achim Meissner.

This nonwoven expertise was indispensable for the development of the machine, "because we are dealing with a complex process here. This includes the fact that the nonwoven layers and the ear loops or headbands are welded ultrasonically. That's why our machines have to be matched to the combination of materials in each separate case." But the biggest challenge was to get the new machine onto the market as quickly as possible, adds Stefan Meissner: "Owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, there was and still is an extremely urgent demand – so we had to develop and deliver the new machine at great speed. At the same time, however, our quality standards are high and we want our customers to have a reliable, productive, low-wear machine that they can use for many years to come."

We had the ideal prerequisites for developing a machine for the production of face masks.
Achim Meissner, Managing Director, Schott & Meissner Maschinen- und Anlagenbau GmbH

Integrated solution speeds up implementation

The idea behind the new machine: A modular system that can be easily configured for different types of mask. "We can process up to six layers of nonwoven fabric; we have options for ear loops or headbands, and we can use an additional production station to insert an exhalation valve – for personal protective equipment in the construction and industrial sectors, for example. This gives us great flexibility with just one type of machine," says Stefan Meissner in explaining the concept. In keeping with this modular structure, Schott & Meissner has opted for a modular, coordinated solution with drive and automation technology from Siemens. Control is provided by a SIMATIC S7-1516TF-CPU, while the axes of the individual stations are driven by SINAMICS S210 drives with DC link coupling and 1FK2 synchronous servo motors. A compact SIMATIC ET200SP I/O system and a SIMATIC HMI TP900 Comfort Panel for operator control complete the package.

Matthias Pflüger, head of Electrical Engineering and Automation at Schott & Meissner, explains what is so special about this solution: "All components are configured in the TIA Portal." Pflüger and his team were able to draw on functions that the company had used in other machines. He went on: "We prefer to use Siemens for our machines, because our machines must be reliable and highly available – and that is really only possible, especially on a worldwide basis, with Siemens. The support, availability of spare parts and quality are just what we need. That's why our automation programs were already well prepared, optimized and standardized." The motion control application for the machine, however, had to be developed from scratch - "and the Siemens Application Programming Center really gave us great support in this". With the support of the experts at Siemens, the team at Schott & Meissner was able to configure the automation, safety and motion control in parallel, and as Stefan Meissner adds: "... thus complete the application twice as fast, in just one month instead of two."

Thanks to Siemens, we were able to complete the motion application twice as fast, in just one month instead of two.
Stefan Meissner, Managing Director, Schott & Meissner Maschinen- und Anlagenbau GmbH

Ready for the second wave - and the time beyond

In September, barely six months after the initial idea was mooted, the team at Schott & Meissner was able to switch on the first machine. Three machines were already delivered in December and more are on order. Depending on the complexity and structure of the mask, the machines can produce between 40 and 60 masks per minute, i.e. up to 28,800 masks per 8-hour shift – "enough for a small town or a very large hospital," according to Achim Meissner. In fact, it is not only companies from the industrial sector that are ordering from Schott & Meissner: "Care companies or hospital groups are also placing inquiries with us so they can meet their own needs for protective equipment for staff, residents and patients." That's why the machine is also kept particularly compact – "so it can also be accommodated in a reasonably spacious basement of a hospital, for example."  The experts at Schott & Meissner are currently working at full speed to complete the machines on order as quickly as possible. But Achim and Stefan Meissner are already thinking ahead: "Like everyone else, we naturally hope that the pandemic will soon be conquered." But the mask-making machines from Schott & Meissner are far from becoming obsolete; of that the two managing directors are sure: "We are convinced that there will continue to be a great demand for protective and hygiene masks. And then we will be able to apply the know-how we have gained in this project to other applications. In this respect, too, the project has been worthwhile."