In March 2020, France was unprepared for the COVID 19-pandemic, with an inadequate supply of gloves, masks, and vital equipment for people in respiratory distress. Industrial companies in the Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region began working to urgently build up a state reserve of filters needed for the operation of medical ventilators. Their solution was an automated cell combining Stäubli’s SCARA TS2-60 and 6-axis TX2-90 robots, which was designed and manufactured within a few weeks.

At the beginning of 2020, Hervé de Malliard, CEO of MGA Technologies (Civrieux d’Azergues, Rhône) observed the first signs of the COVID-19 crisis. As chairman of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes Committee of French Foreign Trade Advisors, he anticipated that there would be a shortage of medical equipment and contacted the health authorities.

Stäubli robots were selected for demanding medical and pharmaceutical applications due to their outstanding performance and hygienic design.

“French hospitals only had 5,000 ventilators available. With global production capacities saturated, and all available stocks having already been snapped up, we didn’t have a moment to waste in order to save lives,” de Malliard explains. “MGA compiled a list of 62 respirator manufacturers located throughout the world, established what their capacities and stocks were, informed them of the upcoming shortage of consumable items, and then proposed that the government build up a state reserve of filters for respirators to cover the country’s needs for several months or even several years. The state accepted this offer, provided that we would be responsible for manufacturing these medical devices and maintain a 100 percent French-owned subsidiary.”

A Race Against Time

Known as an ambassador of the “French Fab,” de Malliard helped manufacturers and start-ups assemble the 400 parts required for the construction of a respirator, thus organizing the creation of a French supply chain for certain critical components. When borders close, proximity becomes crucial.

“Fortunately,” de Malliard notes, “Southeast France possessed the requisite industrial resources for the project. Adrien Mithalal, director of PhysioAssist (Aix-en-Provence, Bouches-du-Rhône), was introduced to us through the Institut Mérieux. He contributed his knowledge of the design and manufacture of these medical devices and opened up his network to us to source the required materials.”

Infiplast, a plastics company for medical devices, was asked to design, prototype, test, and manufacture a critical component for ventilators: the housing containing the heat and moisture exchanger (HME) filter.

“The company began working with whatever materials it had to produce tools and approve products, with the collaboration of various hospitals,” says Alain Michaud, industrial manufacturing manager, Infiplast SAS (Oyonnax, Ain).

Stäubli was able to provide the two cleanroom robots for the cell, which was realized in just a few weeks, in record time.

Stäubli Takes Up the Challenge

To respond quickly to state demand, Infiplast had to set up a dedicated production line. “We approached Stäubli, a world leader in cleanroom robotics. The location of Faverges (Haute-Savoie) was ideal for this partnership,” says Stéphane Buttin, sales director at MGS Technologies. “The company’s proactive response helped us to assemble an automated and insulated workstation, covering design to automation, in less than 10 weeks — a feat, since this type of project ordinarily takes at least 24 weeks to set up. This was a true example of a succesful team effort that is inspiring to all our technicians.”

Stäubli’s response was immediate. “We responded to MGA Technologies and Infiplast’s request within 48 hours and made the robots available in record time. Our new SCARA range is tailored for the desired application, with an enclosed structure designed for aseptic and confined clean-room environments,” says Jacques Dupenloup, sales manager, France and Benelux, at Stäubli Robotics.

Two Robots for an Ultra-Efficient Cell

Using two robots provided a number of significant advantages, including the following:

  • Compactness: The machine, adapted to the limitations of the biomedical world, needs only 8 m ² of space.

  • Complementary task sharing: The TX2-90 six-axis robot collects the various plastic parts for the filter from the press outlet. It places the base of the case and its cover on a turntable. After inserting the foam and the membrane, the six-axis robot assembles the box and places it on the ultrasonic welding station. The TS2 SCARA robot then positions the boxes for final operations of testing and labeling. It directs the compliant filters toward packaging and channels noncompliant filters to the rejects.

  • Quality: A 100 percent quality assurance system is integrated into automated production.

  • Speed: The short cycle time allows a filter to be assembled every few seconds.

  • Cleanliness: Compatibility with specific aseptic requirements for cleanrooms (ISO 7 certification).

  • Ergonomics: The handling of repetitive and hazardous tasks by the robot avoids hearing problems caused by the noise emitted during ultrasonic welding.

Robotics Prospects for the Biomedical Sector

The robotic cell, integrated into the Infiplast production line in mid-July 2020, made it possible to build up the state reserve of HME filters for ventilators in French hospitals as quickly as possible. The manufacture of these filters is now sustainable and is slated to be available to other hospitals internationally.

“It was important for us to be part of the national production effort to secure healthcare. In this way, we were able to help strengthen our country’s industrial production capacities. We are proud that we have contributed to the national response to COVID-19,” says Michaud.

This article was provided by Stäubli Tec-Systems GmbH, Bayreuth, Germany. For more information, visit here .