Singapore now able to produce filters for surgical masks, will be distributed to residents if needed
SINGAPORE: Singapore is now able to produce melt-blown polypropylene filters – the critical fabric that forms the middle layer in surgical masks – as the country continues to beef up its resilience in terms of masks supply amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Developed by Singapore Technologies (ST) Engineering, the locally made filter is “much lighter, much more breathable and has much higher filtration capabilities”, announced Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing on Thursday (Jan 28).
These attributes make the product “very competitive” compared to other sources around the world, he told reporters after a visit to the engineering firm.
Apart from being used to make surgical masks and other medical supplies, Mr Chan said the filter can also be inserted into a reusable face mask to provide the “equivalent performance of a surgical mask”. A piece of filter can last for an average of “three days or so” when combined with a reusable mask, he added.
If the pandemic worsens and a “higher-grade mask” is needed to protect the population, the Government will be able to provide everyone in the country with at least two of these melt-blown polypropylene filters per week.
Mr Chan, who stressed that there is no need to distribute the filters yet, said: “We are able to produce at least two per person per week so that will mean that we actually have a sustainable solution going forward, even if we don't have the other materials that make up the surgical mask.”
The availability of locally made filters also means that Singapore has reached a “new milestone” in its capability to produce sufficient surgical masks for its healthcare workers.
“We achieved this capability of producing sufficient surgical mask for healthcare workers last year but at that point in time, we still needed to import the melt-blown polypropylene filters,” Mr Chan said.
“Now, we have greater control of the entire production chain of the surgical mask required for our healthcare workers.”
RESOLVING A “CRITICAL VULNERABILITY”
Describing the new production capability as a “significant” one, Mr Chan said the wheels were set in motion as soon as the country started producing its own surgical masks last year.
But the supply of melt-blown filters proved to be a “critical vulnerability” as global demand soared.
“So we activated the process to acquire the machines to produce the melt-blown polypropylene filters ourselves,” the minister said, adding that orders for these machines were placed in the first half of last year.
At the same time, factories had to be readied to house these machines, which arrived in the second half of 2020.
But developing capabilities was “not a straightforward process of just buying the machines”, said Mr Chan.
“At first we thought that we buy the machine and (we will) be able to do this, but we quickly realised that we actually need to have deep knowledge on how the science behind the filter works in order for us to produce the right mixture, the right composition to get to the finer material that we want,” he added.
The learning curve was steep for the team of 15 engineers, project managers and technical leads from ST Engineering who had to “figure out … everything from the ground up within a compressed timeline”, said Mr Gareth Tang, who is senior vice president and head of robotics and autonomous solutions at the firm.
Another challenge was in understanding the “highly complex” production process.
“As we are producing medical-grade filter material, a high level of precision and control at every stage of the production process is required to achieve high filtration performance - from material formulation and mixing, melting of polymers, to the blowing out of fibres under controlled environmental conditions,” said Mr Tang, who also heads urban environment solutions.
“We were fortunate to be able to tap on our experience in respiratory protection to accelerate the innovation process and production of the filter material.”
Mr Chan noted that there were some delays with the “circuit breaker” pushing back completion works at the factories, and credited the technical team from ST Engineering for overcoming these challenges.
Moving forward, production of the filters can be done on a “sustained basis” as long as Singapore can get hold of the raw materials – polypropylene pellets.
These are “quite easily available across the world” and the country has different sources to acquire them, including from some of the specialty chemical plants located on Jurong Island “in time to come”, the minister said.
“That gives us greater assurance on the integrity and the sustainability of our supply chain.”
When asked about the costs involved in developing this new capability, Mr Chan said he would keep it confidential due to commercial clauses in contracts with the machine suppliers.
“But having said that, it’s an amount that I think is well worth spending.”
NO NEED TO DISTRIBUTE FILTERS YET
Responding to a question on when the filters will be distributed to the public, Mr Chan said there is no need to for now.
“Because at this point in time, most of us are able to use the reusable mask and if everyone wears a reusable mask, it provides us the adequate protection necessary at this point in time,” he said.
In the meantime, the Government will continue to build up its stockpile of the filter to ensure that it can roll out its distribution plan to the population if the need arises.
“We don't need to do this yet, but we are always thinking ahead because this is a very challenging point in time as the virus has mutated to many forms,” he said.
“We want to be sure that we have in place the necessary materials in case we need to provide a higher protection level for our people.”
With the population progressively getting their COVID-19 vaccines, Mr Chan was asked if there is a possibility that these filters will not be needed eventually and the capability developed will go to waste.
The minister disagreed, noting that even with the vaccination programme under way, there remains the need for people to wear masks and practise safe distancing measures as the pandemic continues.
He also said that the capability of producing these melt-blown filters will be crucial for the long term.
First, the knowledge of producing high-quality filters will be important in the event of future pandemics or other medical contingencies.
Second, such filtration capabilities will not be limited to mask-making and can be applied to other adjacent products, including water filters used by some industries.
“So this kind of investment in the filtration capabilities will allow us to branch out into new markets and new products, even if one day the demand for the mask is reduced,” said Mr Chan.
“So, we don't think that it will be wasted. We think that in fact, it is a critical capability going forward, not just for medical, but also other industry use including water filtration.”
ST ENGINEERING TO LAUNCH MASKS
ST Engineering has produced its first batch of surgical masks with these newly developed filters, according to a Facebook post by Temasek Holdings chief executive Ho Ching.
Mdm Ho joined the Singapore Technologies group in 1987 as deputy director of engineering and later became its president and chief executive in 1997.
In her Facebook post, she wrote about how ST Engineering had troubles securing good quality melt-blown filters before deciding to order “custom-built” machines to make its own.
Referring to the new masks, she wrote: “The ST Engineering folks hope to bring this product to the market soon. Their L size fits most adults, while their M size is for very small face adults and children.”
When asked, ST Engineering’s Mr Tang said the team was planning to incorporate the filters in its surgical masks “in the coming months”.
“However, as part of supply chain resilience, we will continue to diversify our raw material sources,” he added.
On how the new capability can help to cut production costs, Mr Tang said that it was determined by various factors such as manpower, utilities and raw material costs which are determined by market forces.
“We have consistently endeavoured to price our masks at a price point that is affordable to the general public, and will continue to do so.”