As a family-owned business that has specialised in small and large-format printing, sign-making, engraving, exhibition and display hardware, the Valley Group couldn’t have envisioned itself working ‘non-stop’ to support the NHS – but that was before the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic gripped the country.
The switch from sign-making to producing face masks for the NHS arrived when Mr Richard Dawson, a director of the Swansea based company received a telephone call from a lifelong friend in need of desperate help. That friend was a well-respected doctor and clinical lead at the Hywel Dda University Health Board. Unfortunately for the West Wales health board, its existing supplier of face masks had naturally exhausted their capacity, leaving 10,000+ staff at the Hywel Dda University Health Board in desperate need of protection. The 13 employee Swansea valley company spent four days developing a prototype, sourcing materials and manufacturing sample masks. Following an expedited testing period by the University Health Board’s infectious control department, full production has now commenced.
With face masks urgently required, the Valley Group had to give due diligence to its material selection, production methods, the subsequent assembly process and any medical regulatory conformance – all whilst factoring in high-level production demands. One critical factor was the cutting of the 0.5mm thick PETG face visors that had to be free from burrs and sharp edges, as this could pose a different health risk to medical staff. Luckily, the Valley Group has been a customer of Industrial Tooling Corporation (ITC) Ltd for more than a decade, so when it came to cut thin plastic sheets on its Biesse Klever routing machine, the Tamworth based cutting tool manufacturer stepped in with advice.
Commenting on this, Mr Dawson recalls: “The PETG visor is the most critical part of the facemask assembly, as we knew that the masks had to be burr-free. With high production volumes and rapid turnaround times, we couldn’t afford to be hand finishing the masks. I called Sally Hunt at ITC, as her technical advice and support down the years has been invaluable. Sally considered the working parameters of our Biesse machine as well as the material and thickness, she subsequently recommended the Clearcut 180 Series of solid carbide single flute downcut routing tools.”
“In little more than a weekend, we have produced over 1000 masks for the Hywel Dda Health Board and we now have a firm order from Bridgend County Council for another 5000 masks for its care workers. Additionally, we are currently awaiting testing and certificates required by NHS Wales to supply all Wales’ health boards. With demand rapidly rising, we are aiming to start a second shift so we can increase production from 700 to 1400 masks per day.”
Producing the Facemask
The facemask consists of a 0.5 mm PETG visor, an elasticated strap that is pre-cut to length and foam padding that is applied to the visor to create an element of comfort for the healthcare user. “The PETG sheets are 2050 by 1250mm and we can produce 20 face visors from each sheet. It takes 10 minutes to print 20 mask designs on our large format flatbed printer and simultaneously another 20 masks will be cut out on our Biesse routing machine. We are running this machine at 24,000rpm with a feed rate of 10m/min.”
“Simultaneously, we will cut the foam protectors and then fix these to the masks. Despite being in production, we are already developing a new version. This is because the foam guarding is only considered as ‘single-use’ in areas of potential contamination. We are creating a double-sided adhesive design, so medical staff can dispose of the foam guarding and replace it with a new foam guard, as often as is required.”
Concerning the cutting tools from ITC, Mr Dawson says: “We initially ordered one 6mm diameter solid carbide 180 Clearcut Series routing tool and with a high number of facemask orders, we also ordered an additional 6 tools. However, we have produced over 1000 visors and the first cutting tool hasn’t even started to wear. The edge finish on the visor is still of the utmost quality with no sign of the plastic burring or creating rough edges. The reason we buy cutting tools from ITC is for their focus on quality, technical support and advice we get from their engineering team. With the facemasks for the numerous Welsh health boards and councils, we really were in a race against the clock to produce the goods. In such instances, you do need the best technical partners and solution providers around you and we certainly have this with ITC. Even during a national crisis, it is reassuring to know that technical solution providers like ITC are still manufacturing quality cutting tool solutions here in the UK to support British manufacturers – in particular the hundreds of companies like us that are meeting critical infrastructure and healthcare provisions.”