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Where there’s a will, there’s a way – an innovative nonwoven for face masks developed in record time

Suominen was eager to do its share when it became clear that Finland was having difficulties in sourcing high-quality face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Together with its partners, Suominen developed a nonwoven for the manufacturing of face mask applications – in an ultra-fast-tracked innovation process. The key to the success was the open-minded, seamless cooperation between all parties involved.

At Suominen, it all started with an internal brainstorming on the structure of face masks in late March. After that, things advanced at a fast pace.

Based on the outcomes of the open-minded idea generation, fabric samples were sent to Suominen’s partners to get their feedback on the processability of the material. To get a better understanding of the filtration properties of nonwovens, close cooperation with VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland was started.

Development work all day – and night

In collaboration with VTT, Suominen improved the fabric’s filtration properties and, in partnership with converters, enhanced its processability. As the commitment of all parties was extremely strong, work was done regardless of regular working hours. All in all, this was a big effort that required flexible ways of working.

As the filtration level approached fulfillment of the European Standard for Type II requirements, the Finnish Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment became interested in Suominen’s development work. Simultaneously Suominen applied and was granted innovation funding by Business Finland, the Finnish government organization to support the ongoing work.

Investment decision made only a couple of days after a successful pilot

When the product’s design was settled on through several iterations, Suominen immediately started evaluating the investment needs to start larger-scale production of the new innovation. At the same time, the company’s maintenance team quickly carried out the work needed to change Nakkila pilot facility suitable for the production of the new fabric.

At the most hectic state of the product development, the final pilot tests were run in Nakkila on a Friday, the VTT’s research was received the next day, and an investment proposal was drawn up and processed within a couple of days. Currently, the Nakkila plant’s production capacity for the new nonwoven – called FIBRELLA® Shield – is material for approximately 15 million face masks per month.

“This has really been an interesting journey. The target itself was clear from the beginning, but the fact that it is all about saving lives got us all to go the extra mile needed. The innovation process started from zero, and just a month and a half later we were ready to start the large-scale production of a totally new nonwoven. Normally, this kind of process would take two years,” says Product Development Manager Miika Nikinmaa from Suominen.

The nonwoven fulfills standards and satisfies user needs

Now Suominen’s innovative nonwoven has even passed the European Standard EN 14683:2019 (Medical face masks – requirements and test methods) Type II requirements in terms of filtration efficiency and pressure drop.

“The FIBRELLA® Shield nonwoven has excellent filtration efficiency and pressure drop values, meaning that the material provides protection while being comfortable and easy to breathe through,” says Suominen’s Category Manager Johanna Sirén.

VTT’s research indicates that FIBRELLA® Shield’s filtration efficiency is higher than 99% and thus reaches Type II requirements, but naturally the material can also be used for lighter model Type I masks or uncertified masks.

“We have received positive feedback from several user panel tests about the fabric’s textile-like softness and that it’s odorless. The results also show that FIBRELLA® Shield is comfortable to use even for several hours and that it doesn’t build up moisture during use,” Johanna Sirén concludes.