German filter company Melitta illustrated resourcefulness filling the void in a time of need when it pivoted its production and materials to make a coffee filter mask.
When the pandemic began spreading throughout Europe in March and April, stockpiles of protective supplies and masks quickly ran short. German authorities made a pubic appeal: more personal masks to halt the spread were urgently needed.
Help came from what most would see as an unlikely source: Melitta, the 122 year-old maker of coffee and vacuum filters. The company realized that by rethinking the potential of their existing materials and production capabilities. By rethinking their operations and assets, they could produce up to a million masks a day using their existing assets in new ways.
“Facing this particular challenge, we realized that we could produce the needed quantities at an insane speed,” Katharina Roehrig, a managing director at Melitta told The New York Times.
As the Times reports:
The essential ingredient in many medical-grade masks — what separates them from simple home made versions — is a filter made of nonwoven super thin fibers, formed in a process known as melt-blown extrusion. Since the pandemic, demand for so-called melt-blown fiber has skyrocketed.
For Melitta, melt-blown fiber is readily available: It makes its own, mainly for use in vacuum cleaner bags.New York Times
The ready supply of the necessary microfiber normally used in vacuum cleaner bags was the first of two of the company’s assets that could be repurposed for new use to make a coffee filter mask. The design of the mask itself was the coup de grace:
“The ergonomics of the thing, the fact that the filter fits exactly over mouth, nose and chin is so unbelievable that you might call it a gift from heaven.”Katharina Roehrig
The company can produce a coffee filter mask on the same machines it uses for their commercial coffee filters. By swapping their machines’ source material form coffee filter fiber to that used in their vacuum cleaners, they are able to produce masks with a filter efficiency above 98 percent, which is comparable to medical masks.
In the first month, Melitta was able to produce 10 million protective masks.
It is a powerful tale of the potential that can be unlocked by looking at existing materials and production capabilities and thinking “This Could…”