Innovating for Impact: How we created a surgical mask making machine during the pandemic
Suhani and I started Saral designs in 2015 to tackle the menstrual hygiene issues in India through product design and education. We developed the world’s first decentralized sanitary napkin making machine called- SWACHH. After spending 2 years developing the technology, we have now sold 30 of these machines in states across India, with the mission of having one machine in each district of India. Recently, our sales team had practically secured us a large order, which would have enabled us to set-up machines in approximately 10% of India’s 700 districts and this would definitely have taken us one step closer towards our goal. However, COVID-19 cases had begun rising in India by early March 2020 and we saw a reduction in the client footfall. During this time, we decided to be proactive and before the lockdown announcement by the government came in, we took the tough call of making ‘work from home’ arrangements for all our employees. This had made it impossible to service the sales order that we were looking forward to. With the decline in client footfall we foresaw a direct impact on our cash flow.
We also started receiving a few enquiries from our existing and new clients about the need of a mask making machine. Since we have the expertise in machine designing and disposable hygiene products, these enquires instigated our idea of manufacturing mask making machines. The challenges that faced us were that we had to get the machine design right in the first attempt, with a likely long lockdown crippling us, low funds to spare and a few staff to develop the machine. We had a few ideas on converting our sanitary napkin production line to a face mask production line. Feasibility was quickly checked with the design team and we decided to have a go at it. One of the bigger realizations that we had, as a team, in this process was that we were one of the few designers and manufacturers of hygiene production lines in our country and hence it was not just an opportunity, but more of a duty for us to quickly make these lines to serve our community.
We applied a two pronged approach:
1) Made a semi-automatic mask making machine which helped us in producing surgical masks in the shortest possible time. For this, we had to convert one of our existing sanitary napkin production lines to make surgical masks. This also taught us a lot about surgical masks and eventually helped us in the designing of an automated machine.
2) Made an automatic mask making machine that can produce surgical masks in volumes and can be a sustainable project for our clients to pursue in the long term. This machine would have to be entirely designed and fabricated. We had done intense research on all available designs in the market, and spent long hours creating detailed fabrication drawings based on our processes, strengths and resources.
Our next bottleneck was to procure the parts which we had designed. Due to the lockdown, most of the part fabricators and workshops that we worked were closed. It was during this time that Suhani reached out to the team at Mahindra & Mahindra for a possible partnership on mask manufacturing. The Mahindra team agreed to align with us and provide all the essential support. The timelines that we had set along with the Mahindra team were very stringent. Within a span of a week, we developed our first semi-automatic mask making machine, started the mask production, procured the raw materials, and obtained the quality standards required for the mask from a recognized laboratory.
Using the semi-automatic mask machine, we started with a target production of 2000 masks per day and within 10 days we reached to 10,000 masks per day. Since we were new with the mask production and the machine design, we initially struggled to get consistent production. Sometimes, we had to take a tough call to stop the production for a day amidst the huge demand and spend time to make changes on the machine. However, these minor setbacks only gave us the thrust to achieve the record of making 25,000 masks per day. The feeling of making something new is always exhilarating, and it was the same when we made the first mask using the machine developed by us.
While we had stabilized the production of masks using semi-automatic machine, our goal was to develop a high speed automatic machine to make the masks. The “work from home” model enabled our designers to invest longer hours on the designs and get them ready in a record time. Our partner, Mahindra team had been kind to delegate a very experienced team to fabricate, assemble and test these designs. We had initially underestimated the complexity of the machine but with the help of our partners, we successfully assembled and began the testing. We initially began the testing with a speed of 5 masks/min and slowly increased to 12, 20 and max speed by optimizing cycle time in fractions of a second. Also, as the number of coronavirus affected cases in Maharashtra & Gujarat increased, our challenges with procuring parts from local suppliers increased. It was during this time that new opportunities opened up with few of the well-equipped suppliers contacting us with the fabrication support. As we worked on the fabrication & assembly of the automatic machines, semi-automatic production of masks was ongoing at Mahindra. By mid-May we had made a million masks and had completed the assembly & testing of our first mask making machine.
The experience gained by our entire team working with the top management of a large corporate such as Mahindra, has been indispensible. During an internal team call when I asked all the employees to share their experiences of working with Mahindra, it was very encouraging to learn that everyone had felt confident working with a corporate and there was a mutual respect for both the teams.While we have been very agile and bold with the idea to develop a machine and start manufacturing masks within 15 days, Mahindra, along with their robust processes of fabrication & their production capabilities, brought the machine to life.
In a very short span of time, we learnt a lot about the processes that would make us more efficient in all aspects of design, procurements, logistics & management, and at the same time we became more aware of the fact that, as a start-up, we can execute certain things faster than a corporate by being nimble and being low on processes and hierarchies. This entire process of developing a mask making machine during a pandemic has helped us grow immensely – as a team and as an individual, something we will remember years later!