Thermoplastic innovator commissioned for Covid research

Award-winning Mark Grix (centre): A thermoplastic solution to spread of Covid-19?

Technological breakthroughs don’t always come from an inspired eccentric working alone in a garden shed.

While a moment of inspiration may have triggered the idea of the Centaur – a highly functional wheelchair which would be the envy of all who saw it – long hours of research and development by acclaimed engineers and designers are the real secrets behind this beautiful revolution in mobility.

Centaur Robotics has now commissioned award-winning thermoplastics innovator Mark Grix to create surfaces resistant to viruses and bacteria to help reduce the transmission of diseases like Covid-19.

Anti-bacterial

He is investigating whether anti-bacterial polymers and medical grade materials, both notoriously difficult to use on everyday products, could be adapted for the self-balancing Centaur.

“There are materials used in the medical device industry which have exceptionally smooth surfaces,” said Mark. “Microbes cannot get a foothold, so they slide off. The problem is that they are pretty awful colours, have a pretty awful feel and, as a result, there is a limit to the visual solution they will give you.”

Thermoplastic techniques could be used to mould the Centaur’s panels out of material that is anti-microbial. Bugs cannot attach to polymers with a “closed cell” surface, for instance.

Mark, who works for RLE International, a leading engineering and technology development company, is considering other options too.  “We are also looking at coatings. When you enter a shop, there’s a steel plate on a door that people touch. That is cleaned with a disinfectant or antibacterial spray. Imagine if that plate was coated with something the microbes couldn’t stick to.”

Sustainability is key

Centaur Robotics: Protecting the vulnerable

The work is funded by an Innovate UK grant with an emphasis on sustainability, key in a world with diminishing resources.

“Thermoplastic can be remoulded many times without affecting the physical performance of the material,” Mark added. “It’s recyclable, impact resistant, low in weight and very durable.”

While a vaccine may eventually halt the spread of Covid-19, the spectre of other dangerous viruses and bacteria hasn’t gone away and Centaur Robotics hopes to share this technology with other industries.

John Reed, engineering director at Centaur Robotics, said interactional three dimensional computer technology like CATIA enabled the company to review and check the virtual product before manufacture. Computer stress tests and detailed component sizing prevents problems further down the line.

“We are using the type of engineering disciplines which are standard for the automotive and aerospace industry,” added John. “We are able to review and check the progress constantly and can also show it virtually.”

Engineering fundamentals

There have already been a number of physical (rather than virtual) prototypes produced.

Mark Grix added that he was impressed with the company’s dependence on science and engineering fundamentals.

“Centaur Robotics uses analysis-led design which most small volume manufacturers don’t follow,” said Mark. “It’s clear that rigorous engineering techniques are used throughout the process.”

In 2018, Mark won the annual Horners Award for Plastic Design and Innovation for creating a thermoplastic car component which helped save fuel and manufacturing costs.