Leading packaging manufacturer enters medical face mask production within a few months

14.06.2021 When the COVID 19 pandemic gained momentum in early 2020, demand for protective masks exploded worldwide virtually overnight. Looming supply shortages and the thought that the pandemic could cripple global supply chains prompted one of the world's leading packaging manufacturers to enter face mask production in a big way.

The Manufacturing Execution System (MES) COAGO from GRASS provides a leading packaging manufacturer with all the management and control options in its new production process for medical face masks.
© Photo: GRASS GmbH
The Manufacturing Execution System (MES) COAGO from GRASS provides a leading packaging manufacturer with all the management and control options in its new production process for medical face masks.

The group of companies with a strong focus on the production of flexible packaging for food, pharmaceutical and hygiene products has relied on the industry-specific Manufacturing Execution System COAGO MES from GRASS GmbH for the planning, control and monitoring of its film production and finishing for more than ten years. This provided the packaging manufacturer with production sites all over the world with a solid basis for the integration of its new systems and processes for mask production, including the manufacture of melt-blown nonwovens. Thus, an extremely short project duration of less than three months was sufficient to set up production with a capacity for one million masks daily according to EU standard IIR.

30 years of practical experience

COAGO MES is based on 30 years of practical experience and was developed as an industry solution specifically for the production, finishing and processing of roll, web and format materials. "From the very beginning, our customer pursued the goal of integrating its new melt blown and mask production into its COAGO MES in order to be able to maintain its strategy of a homogeneous production management system below SAP. Since the new production facilities are based on the same principles and macro processes as those used in film production, we were able to scale the MES via simple parameterisation without any programming effort. In this way, we implemented the requirements within less than twelve weeks," says Joachim Schütz, member of the management board and head of sales at Grass GmbH, based in Bad Kreuznach, Germany.

The melt-blown nonwoven is an important preliminary product in the production of medical face masks. Both in its production and in its further processing, the highest requirements apply to product quality and safety. The same applies to the traceability of all raw materials used – starting with the plastic granulate from which the nonwoven is made and ending with the finished masks. In addition, permanent, verifiable monitoring is required in production to ensure that all process parameters are adhered to. Already in the dosing and mixing processes at the extruder – they are based on recipes, alternative recipes and alternative raw materials (so-called group articles) – exact information on the raw materials and on the batches is recorded. They are inherited throughout the entire value chain, including all production stages up to the finished masks. In this way, the requirements for complete traceability of all batches are met.

The packaging manufacturer has comprehensive facilities for recording operating, quality, machine and process data as well as for integrating optical control systems, among other things. The group of companies also uses this infrastructure in its new production area. In this process, all data is also consistently passed on from reel to reel – across all production stages and semi-finished products up to the finished mask batches. With the integrated reporting tool, all stages involved in the process can access the data for evaluations. This forms the basis for transparency, efficiency and productivity.

Maximum process reliability

Via the COAGO specification management module, the production management defines and monitors all driving values of the plants. Process deviations lead to the marking of the affected rollers. The alarms triggered enable fast reaction and countermeasures before costly errors occur. Quality inspections accompany the production process on the basis of the respective inspection plans. All data are assigned to reference points such as orders, machines, dates, shifts, teams or roles, match each other and are available for analysis at any time.

In mask production, the MES validates the entire material input - the rolls of the different types of nonwoven for the multi-layer nonwoven composite, the nose clips, the ear bands and the packaging materials – for correctness and identifies them for batch tracking. This information is also easily retrievable via the standard graphical functionality of the MES across the entire value chain.

The line reports the quantities and times automatically into COAGO MES, which minimises the operating effort in production. The nonwoven rolls and the other input materials can be written off according to the quantities produced and monitored mathematically for availability. The integrated warehouse, logistics and transport control organises the supply processes with input material and the removal of the products in all production stages.

Multi-stage packaging processes can be mapped without adjustments

The finished masks are bundled and shrink-wrapped in foils, the bundles are packed into boxes and these are placed in outer cartons. Schütz: "We were also able to map the multi-stage packaging processes in the MES without any adjustments. Finally, the transport management integrated in the MES accompanies the packed masks all the way to shipping and their loading onto the trucks. The advantage of this deep integration is obvious: all information flows continuously from the raw materials to the loading ramp." Internal complaints, for example about the raw materials or process deviations in the extruder, filter through to the pallets ready for dispatch. The result is maximum process reliability. Test certificates and declarations of conformity for delivery as well as other documents or management evaluations requested by the customer are automatically available in the MES thanks to the seamless data acquisition in production.

"We have mapped a new production technology that is subject to the macro processes of roll production largely by customising existing structures with little effort. Thanks to the easy scalability and expandability of the MES, our customer's investment has proven to be future-proof - a basic requirement of strategic business applications," says Schütz.