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Fast Throughput on a Small Footprint: A Work Cell for High-Volume Mask Making

March 30, 2021
The work cell can be used for masks of different sizes, with different materials and strap lengths.

About a year ago, when the pandemic took hold, the healthcare community was rushing to get protective gear—especially face masks—to everyone who wanted one. Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be enough masks to go around.

To counter this shortage, Charles Boyce, president of Boyce Technologies (BTI), tasked his company with designing and building a machine that could make masks quicky and efficiently. The first step was studying the mask-making machines already on the market.

“All the mask-making machines we looked at were based on 20-year-old-designs; they were large, single-purpose machines,” says Tom Powell, vice president of Business Development for BTI. “They were also expensive, needed lots of space and you couldn’t get one in the near term. With new technology, we knew we could make a nimble machine with high-capacity throughput on a small footprint for a much lower cost of ownership.”

The BTI team also wanted its new machines to be flexible and easily modified to make different sizes of masks, such as smaller ones for children, and for different face sizes and mask styles. The machines would also be able to use different materials like cotton and synthetics and attach straps of different materials and lengths.

“There’s no point in making a one-size-fits-all machine,” explains Powell. “We designed a machine that can give people what they want.”

To make the machine compact, fast and flexible, BTI designers knew it would need state-of-the-art motion control components such as actuators, robots, PLCs, servo motors, conveyors and EtherNet IT-based communications.

For the electric actuators that would move, form, index, cut and assemble fabrics into masks, BTI turned to Tolomatic, Inc., a Minneapolis-based company that could provide a wide variety of motion control actuators quickly and with the lengths and options needed. Tolomatic is also located in the U.S., a plus for BTI managers who wanted to use U.S.-made parts for better quality, delivery and technical support.

The mask machine has three primary stages: material feed; form and cut; and assemble and finish. At the first station, a Tolomatic B3W rodless belt-drive actuator moves and supports the material. The actuator pulls in a sheet of heavy material and supports a heated form press that comes down on top of the sheet. The actuator needs to resist high moment-loads and carry 100 lb of weight from the press. The entire unit, including the internal carriage support and bearings, is sealed; there are no external guides. This prevents fibers and particles from getting in the actuator and interfering with the motion.

At the second station, another rodless belt-drive actuator also provides fast positioning in moving and supporting a press that cuts and welds the masks. This actuator moves at up to 200 in. per second and supports large moment loads to speed production.

At the third station, rodless actuators move pre-formed masks to an ABB robot, which grabs them and swings them to the other side of the table. There, robots cut and apply straps, as well as glue, cut and apply nose pieces. Two Tolomatic GSA linear slide actuators assist in ultrasonically welding elastic loops that go around the wearer’s ears. The masks are then unloaded for packaging and shipping.

BTI is now thinking of uses for its new mask machine beyond the  pandemic. Being that it is designed to be adapted to make masks for a variety of medical procedures, the company has been receiving requests for non-COVID and specialty masks. “We are looking at a whole host of new products around masks to help doctors facilitate procedures they can’t do now. We see an emerging market for custom masks for specific procedures,” says Powell.

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