Tooling Innovation Provides Relief to Mask Shortages

2K Tool in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is helping to protect citizens with its quick turnaround on face mask tooling.
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Today many manufacturers are experiencing trying times. With the coronavirus still rampant, many shops are under siege to protect workers as directed by stay-at-home government directives and others are suffering financially while employees are forced to stay home.

An idea came to 2K Tool Engineering Manager Kevin Smith while he watched the news and heard a request for toolmakers to develop tooling for face masks.  Smith immediately saw this as an opportunity for his business to help.

Although sales for his business dropped due to the automotive focus of many of his customers, Smith is blessed with a variety of “essential” customers that are keeping his shop operational, while many other shops are closed due to Michigan’s “stay-at-home” executive order.

First, Smith found a basic CAD design for 3D printing a mask online from a 3D Printing Science Center in Montana. He then converted the file to a plastic injection application, took some of his available aluminum stock, and began to make the mold.

The lead time for this project was brisk. It took only one week to design, build, and then start mold trials. “Companies are already asking me about my design and materials,” Smith says.

There were, of course, obstacles during the design stage. The first version had the insert held in from the outside of the mask, but as the mask bent, the insert and filter fell out. “It takes trial and error to determine what set up works best. We were able to redesign the mold quickly, and the new design functions very well,” Smith says.

The mask material is a TPE, while the insert is a Polypropylene compressed-fit to hold in the Hepa filter. Smith initially had problems finding the Hepa filter material, but local furniture manufacturer Steelcase Inc. stepped in to help in the short term.

Cycle time on this mold is 30 seconds. The mold for the insert is around the same part-to-part production time frame.  Smith can produce 2,000 to 3,000 masks per day. When asked if he would be producing these in different colors, he stated, “No. The masks will be available in natural only, in case medical personnel will need to see any contamination on the mask.”

Part of what helped Smith turn this project around so quickly was his new “2Gen” plastic injection molding shop located only a 5-minute drive away from 2K Tool. This shop started as a sampling facility. Many of the tools in the building are low-volume production runs for Magna, but there is open press time for trial runs.

It is businesses like 2K Tool that give people hope, highlighting how American businesses can easily convert a bad situation into potential profits.