The nightmare of coronavirus experienced by Tunisians, like people from all over the world, now seems to be coming to an end. There have been few or no new cases identified since 11 May and morale is once again high. This unprecedented health crisis will leave behind memories of long days of confinement, concerns about this virulent virus, uncertainties about the future but also solidarity initiatives launched by committed citizens competing in ingenuity and creativity when faced with a lack of means and resources. This is the case with the joint initiative between the Tunisian Mechanical Association (ATM: Association Tunisienne de Mécanique) and the Monastir National School of Engineers (ENIM: Ecole Nationale d'Ingénieurs de Monastir), supported by Innovi'I-EU4Innovation, a project to support the strengthening of the entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem in Tunisia, funded by the European Union and implemented by Expertise France.
Faced with the Covid-19 pandemic, the whole world needed to get active and organised fast to find solutions. Some of the key priorities were to equip hospital structures with adequate equipment but also provide protection for medical and paramedical staff first, then for the general public. In this context, the idea of making visors and other protective equipment was born. “As usual, our school has been very reactive, from the very first days when this pandemic was announced,” said Tarak Bouraoui, teacher at ENIM and President of ATM. He adds: “We immediately contacted the authorities and noted that there was a glaring lack of protective equipment for doctors and carers. So, liaising with management, a first working group was quickly formed to respond to this urgent need.” Made up of students, engineers and researchers, the team mobilized to begin the production of protective visor masks. And it is thanks to the success of this first action that the ENIM-ATM initiative found resonance with Innovi'I-EU4Innovation and was funded by the project.
Ramla Gheith, a teacher-researcher in the energy engineering department at ENIM and project manager in charge of the fight against Covid-19, looks back on the beginnings of this initiative. It was a simple discussion on social networks that prompted the eureka moment. “We have discussion groups with the ENIM students on Facebook to talk about school news as well as national and international competitions. Everything was on standby because of the coronavirus, but the students were looking for ways to fill their time and put their skills to good use. When there was a call from the Ministry of Health to citizens to support the State in its fight against the virus and its risks, we immediately thought of solutions at our level and according to the means at our disposal,” she explains. The initiative was launched and the team members were at their most determined. “The enthusiasm of the young people and the motivation of the teachers were a pleasure to see. So we decided to start with the manufacture of reusable visor masks, but due to the lack of 3D printers in the ENIM laboratories, this was not possible. But this first obstacle did not get the better of the teams. Fortunately, a partner with a laser cutting machine offered to put it at our service,” adds the teacher.
Thanks to everyone's positive energy, the first design for a visor mask made by laser cutting was ready after 24 hours. Once the first prototype was made, it had to be checked by doctors and it was Dr Maha Ben Mansour, of the Fattouma-Bourguiba University Hospital intensive care unit who took care of it. Then began a marathon of updates and modifications in order to perfect the visor mask. “During the trials, I met Dr Ben Mansour five or six times in 24 hours. This shows how committed she was alongside us. Next, it was the director of the health and safety department of CHU Fattouma Bourguiba who approved the design of the visor masks. After four trials, the fifth was deemed operational and compliant with the required standards,” she concludes.
It was then necessary to find a manufacturing partner to ensure the production of visor masks in large numbers. In one week, more than 2,500 visor masks were produced and distributed thanks to a great surge of solidarity from many partners. They were distributed to medical and nursing staff in the region and surrounding area. After this first success, they had to get even more proactive as needs were so great. Faced with this reality, Mohamed Nefaa, a teacher at ENIM, suggested changing the process. “We need more visors, so why not try plastic injection?” he suggested to the team members. Taking him at his word, his colleague, Ramzi Fredj, made a model from the mould and found an industrialist who agreed to manufacture them. In less than a week, production was started and nearly 1,000 items were made per day.
ATM-ENIM initiative: phase 2
The success of this operation has paved the way for additional requests. As well as the visors, the medical and paramedical staff needed protective clothing. “ENIM has the only textile engineering department within a university environment. So we felt it was our duty to respond to this request,” says teacher Ramla Geith. In record time and despite all the pitfalls encountered, phase 2 of the initiative was launched and in partnership with manufacturers, suppliers and the crisis committee of the Ministry of Health on standards in terms of fabric and cutting, production was underway, once the various compliance tests had been carried out.
More and more...
As a result of this second success, orders and requests have multiplied. In addition to the visor masks and protective suits, the ATM-ENIM team was asked whether it was possible to also produce incubation chambers, full-face masks, analysis boxes or even a decontamination tunnel. A second team was then formed, in charge of the design and manufacture of a breathing aid system in collaboration with doctors from Fattouma Bourguiba Hospital and the Faculty of Medicine of Monastir. The challenge was daunting! But again, faced with the upsurge in demand and the volume of work, volunteers spontaneously joined this initiative, including doctors, engineers and students. A great wave of solidarity that caught the attention of the Innovi'I-EU4Innovation project team in search of creative initiatives in the fight against Covid-19. Following fruitful discussions between the two parties, a grant of €20,000 was awarded, to finance every angle of the activities to combat Covid-19. In addition to visor masks, protective clothing and breathing aid systems, ATM-ENIM teams are working on the design and manufacture of disinfection booths as well as a robotic disinfection system. Other projects are also underway to design and manufacture medical assistance robots for healthcare professionals or patients in compulsory confinement.
Innovi'I-EU4Innovation, focus on innovation!
Thanks to the grant from the Innovi'I-EU4Innovation project, the ATM-ENIM initiative was able to consolidate and in addition to the successes already achieved, more promising ones are expected with innovative and creative solutions to effectively fight against Covid-19 or any other pandemic that may occur in the future. Other equally innovative initiatives are also in the sights of Innovi'I-EU4Innovation. Funded by the European Union and implemented by Expertise France, this project aims to improve the supply of services for start-ups and entrepreneurs in Tunisia through backing support structures in the fields of entrepreneurship and innovation, to support the establishment of a regulatory and financing framework conducive to innovative entrepreneurship and to start-ups and to enhance the Tunisian entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem on a national and international scale.