When COVID-19 opened unchartered opportunities for Indian industry to jump into mask and body coverall manufacturing, industries complained about lack of machinery availability in India and even attempted to compromise on the product specification, but very few dared to take up steps to fill up the shortage of machinery and replaced costly import by manufacturing indigenous machines.
One such champion belongs to National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), Delhi, who has broken the stereotype of easy import and adopted the arduous journey of manufacturing of indigenous machines to support Atmanirbhar Bharat (Self-Reliant India). Meet the wonder boy, Vaibhav Agarwal, a seventh semester student from NIFT Delhi, who has created indigenous N95 mask manufacturing machine which is the first of its kind for the industry.
Hailing from a business family where the approach was to source what’s best available in the world, Vaibhav sensed that mask would be in demand at the beginning of the pandemic itself. But once the COVID-19 lockdown started, all efforts for purchasing a mask manufacturing machine failed due to long lead time and uncertainty of Chinese imported machines and exorbitant price quoted by local manufacturers. That’s when Vaibhav started toying with the idea of manufacturing a machine of his own, and started exploring the machine features, mechanisms and output. He had some of his first brainstorming sessions with Prof. Prabir Jana at NIFT Delhi about how to attach the elastic loop automatically in the surgical mask, where in 100 per cent of the cases, it is the earloop and attaching separately which would slow down the production and ultimately increase the cost. After successfully designing a fully automatic machine that can produce surgical mask with headband loop (probably a rare feature in surgical mask), Vaibhav has ventured into designing N95 mask manufacturing, which is a high-value product.
Vaibhav, who studies Bachelor of Fashion Technology at NIFT, says, “Although machine manufacturing is not part of our core curriculum, the newly introduced deepening specialisation subjects like mechatronics and IoT have changed my outlook towards solving a problem. When I look at any machine, I automatically start analysing its mechanism, the technology behind it and how to improve it. I give credit to my teacher Dr. Deepak Panghal, Assistant Professor, NIFT Delhi for many such brainstorming sessions about mask manufacturing machine mechanisms and finding a solution to improve upon it.”
N95 masks come in different design types. The three most common shapes are basic, duckbill and fish. Their looks, advantages and disadvantages are stated in the below table:
Table 1: An assessment of different types of N95 masks
Generally in the masks, the elastic bands are attached in two ways – earloops and headloops. The headloops is a better method for elastic bands as the mask can be tightened more on to the skull as compared to the ears thus, providing a good face seal. Also, the headloops are more ergonomic in design as there is no constant stress on the ears which leads to pain. The machine is designed for attaching headloops only that too in a fully automatic manner. For the basic shape, the machine only makes the mask body, while the loops have to be attached separately so that one can have a choice between headloops and earloops and between Duckbill and Fish mask. The headloops are attached online through a fully automatic process.
Making the machine from scratch
If we talk about the mask embossing and cutting roller used in the machines, designing and manufacturing those rollers is an art by itself. Right from the raw material of the roller, one has to be very cautious. “Firstly, I had to design all the rollers for each mask in CAD software and had to make sure that the impressions of all of them are in total sync. Then I had to understand the quality of steel available and choose a very fine imported cold work steel for the life of the roller and performance under high speed and continuous usage. Then I had to get it machined on a 4-axis machine and then I had to get that roll heat-treated for hardness. So, I even had to look out for the process of heat treatment and choose the best type for the life of the roller. Then came the most crucial part, which was grinding the rollers. A single mistake in this part and the whole roll could get destroyed,” explained Vaibhav.
Then he had to understand the complete working of an ultrasonic system so that he could get the best output for the product. There were intricacies like at what torque should one tighten the head to the body of the ultrasonic for which a special tool – torque wrench – had to be ordered. The difference in the tightness could impact the resonance frequency of the ultrasonic system. And then Vaibhav had to choose the most appropriate frequency for the required function.
Coming to designing the whole machine, Vaibhav learnt more about the bearing sizes, tolerances and how the gears and chain systems work which he was introduced to at NIFT. And then he finally prepared a drawing and got the parts machined and assembled accordingly.
Vaibhav further said it was an even difficult process to achieve the perfect quality with very limited resources of raw material and testing available in India. “I went on the path to find the correct material for mask under the guidance of Dr. Rashmi Thakur, Faculty of NIFT. When I started testing, there was no approved lab open to public for mask testing according to the standards. So I searched for an alternative and found another lab which used to do clean room testing. So there, first I got the masks of established and approved brands tested to check the quality of testing at lab, and then, I did a comparative analysis to get the required results. It was a very difficult task to source the filtration medium as people had very limited knowledge about the quality and even samples obtained from the pioneers in non-woven manufacturing failed the standard. And finally, I found the right quality manufacturer whose material I have used and got my BIS License,” elaborates Vaibhav.
Furthermore, the third design was made which is the 3-panel fish mask design. The system Vaibhav developed for that design is the one which is something new and not done by any mask making machine company internationally. He had developed the method to apply headloops to the 3-panel mask online, that too with ultrasonic bonding process which is not even achieved by 3M as of today, as per Vaibhav’s understanding.
Apparel Resources caught up with Vaibhav for a detailed interaction. Excerpts from the interview…
What is unique about the fish mask design? What’s unique about your machine that no international machine can offer?
Vaibhav: 3-Panel mask / Fish shape
The fish mask design provides a very comfortable fit with the best face seal as compared to the duckbill mask and the standard flat and fold N95 design, while still offering a good room for breathability. Firstly, most of the international machines available for the fish mask attach earloops instead of the headloops using a process where first the mask body is made and then that is automatically transferred to another line where the earloops are attached. Secondly, no machine manufacturer in the world right now is manufacturing a machine which attaches headloops on an automatic line; there are solutions available where first the body will be manufactured and then the headloops will be attached to them using a different machine line. What I’ve done is to make the process fully automatic and I’ve integrated the process of attaching the headloops while making the mask body itself. So, I’ve removed one whole step from manufacturing these fish masks and made the process fully automatic along with saving on electricity consumption, space consumption and reducing the complexity of the machine to a great extent.
Now, I’m in the process of building my second machine which will only manufacture the 3-panel design in which I’m expecting an output speed of more than one mask per second which can roughly be equal to 60,000 to 70,000 masks in a day.
Your machine is having a flexible design that can produce all three designs of masks? Can you elaborate on the production rate for each?
Vaibhav: Yes, I can manufacture all the designs on the same machine with some slight changes to the machine. The production rate on my current machine with very low power ultrasonic system is around 40-50 masks per minute for basic shape, 20-25 masks per minute for duckbill shape and 20-25 masks per minute for fish shape. With the high power ultrasonic, which I’m using in my next machine, the expected production speed will be 2-3 times as compared to the current machine.
How much set-up time is required to change the machine from one style to another?
Vaibhav: It usually takes 30 to 60 minutes to change the set-up for producing any of the three styles.
Are there any such flexible machines available in the market, which can manufacture more than one style in the same machine?
Vaibhav: As far as I know, no manufacturer in the world is manufacturing such a machine which can produce these three types of masks (basic, duckbill and fish) or even two types of masks on the same machine.
What are your future plans?
Vaibhav: Right now, I’m not operating at my full capacity, as I don’t have that many orders in hand and I’m developing my market for export. I’m also selling the masks under my own brand name ‘Weldots’ and have recently got the BIS License to manufacture FFP2/N95 standard masks. The BIS license not only depends on the viral filtration standards, but also on the mask shape and reproducibility. My machine is fully certified for the same, as given below –
Designing and making machine in India has challenges like availability of parts. From where did you source your parts? Are all the components used in your machine made in India? What were the challenges you faced while sourcing the parts?
Vaibhav: If we talk about the parts, then I got most of the machine parts like ball bearings, motors, nut bolts at a local hardware shop and got the others made by a machine workshop after giving them the required design. I had to get the rollers made on special 4-axis/C-axis machines for which I sourced the vendors in Delhi itself. And talking about the ultrasonic system, I bought them from a supplier who kept spare parts for non-woven bag making machines as the same was used there.
One of the components which is the ultrasonic system was not made in India. I bought it from a supplier who had imported stock. It’s not that they are not made in India, but the price difference and the quality difference was huge at that time so I had no other option than to buy the imported one to keep my financials on track. Also, the cold work steel used for making the rollers was bought from a company which imported it from Taiwan as there are only a very few manufacturers around the world which produce such quality of cold work steel. I tried the Indian steel, but that didn’t stand strong in front of the imported one.
The major challenge I faced was that in the initial stages, there was no one making such rollers, so even the machinist was learning along with me to develop the required quality of roller – that is what consumed a lot of time reiterating to achieve the perfect output. And at that time, another major challenge was to work during the lockdown. I personally had to go to DM’s office to put forward my idea and get the permission for myself and the machine workshop to operate during that time.
Would you like to offer/license the technology to other machine manufacturers in India? Why do you think Indian Engineering students are averse to such challenges? And what message would you like to give to young engineering students of India?
Vaibhav: Yes, I am ready to offer the machine technology to others because I feel there is no use of keeping it to just myself and let it fade away with the business. I would like to offer it so that I can invest my time and money into developing something else and try on other ideas I have in my mind. What I think is that everyone does not have the financial liberty to invest in R&D. I had my father then to support me financially even though we had to take some loan but he believed in me so he was ready to invest here. Not everyone with an idea gets a chance to execute it, or say, is pursuant enough to chase it until it’s executed.
Indian engineering students are adverse to such challenges due to lack of resources and awareness. I was able to carry this forward as I had some knowledge about different domains like textiles, machines, finance, economics and world news. I think they should learn about economics of supply and demand which can promote instant reaction to sudden demand looking at the financial benefits which is a great motivator.
My message to all the young engineering students is that if you want to create something new, diversify your learning. Before specialising in one thing, one should be well aware about what all can be done. Knowing what to do is more important than focusing on how to do it, as for this, Google already has immense information. And after figuring out what to do, one should focus on how to do it. One should gather all the information about the ways that the thing can be done and then choose the best one and execute it.
Also, what I’ve figured out in this whole process of manufacturing the machine is that there are a lot of voids in machine manufacturing industry; there are very few who know the bigger picture and can integrate all the systems required to build a machine. There’s an endless scope for people who have a wide knowledge of machines and one can integrate all the different departments together to create anything.
The article has been contributed by Vaibhav Agarwal, student of Bachelor of Fashion Technology, NIFT Delhi, and the technical content team at Apparel Resources.