A grassroots effort dubbed the “Maskforce” has mobilized to produce personal protective equipment (PPE) by the hundreds of thousands for nurses and doctors on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic.
Led by Husco, the local taskforce is working on three mask designs, in which universities including UW-Milwaukee, Concordia, Marquette and MSOE are partnering with manufacturers including Rexnord, Midwest Composite Technologies, Harken and Briggs & Stratton to produce reusable, medical-grade N95-style respirators en masse.
The Maskforce includes 25 organizations under the guidance of health and safety organizations including Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin, Children’s Wisconsin and the Milwaukee County Emergency Operations Center.
Building off a design made widely available by Chilean-manufacturer Copper 3D, the taskforce has developed its own mask prototypes made with rubber and plastic that can be produced with a 3D printer. The goal is to reach a scalable solution that can meet volume requirements, said Pat Masterson, Husco vice president of corporate manufacturing.
The effort was sparked by recently approved legislation, which allowed the use of industrial N95-style respirators as a way to combat the shortage of PPE. But with several local organizations working on solutions independently, Masterson also saw a need for a united front.
Members of the now coordinated effort are meeting on a daily call in which each organization reports their progress and is given direction on where to go next. For Masterson, innovation means more than just “a new piece of software,” it’s a team’s ability to solve a problem at an accelerated pace, he said.
“One thing I’ve also been impressed with is, even though these are all separate organizations, I’ve seen zero boundaries,” Masterson said. “Nobody is talking about the business side of this. The collaboration across dozens of organizations is pretty remarkable.”
Peering through the looking glass of the Maskforce would reveal a cast of dedicated and passionate professionals who may not have otherwise crossed paths if it weren’t for the pandemic. One such member is UW-Milwaukee prototyping center director Kyle Jansson, who starting Sunday, led a team of engineers who produced what is considered the most viable mask prototype.
“We specifically found that UW-Milwaukee's team was further ahead then anyone else,” Masterson said. “They were on their third or fourth revision while our Husco team on Saturday night was on our first or second.”
The UW-Milwaukee team accomplished in 48 hours what would have otherwise taken 4 weeks, Jansson said. Through the design process, his team worked closely with medical professionals including Dr. John Roddy, a critical care medicine fellow with MCW.
Jansson's team, with the help of many, conducted a variety of safety tests and design tweaks to make sure masks were comfortable, easily assembled and could fit a variety of facial structures.
“Considering he’s going to be on the frontlines, (Roddy) didn’t give us an inch of ‘Oh, that’s cute, I would try that,’” Jansson said. “It was, ‘that’s not good enough, make it better’ and saying it with a sense of urgency but also a sense of seriousness of ‘step your game up everybody, this is real.’”
By day two, Jansson’s team had produced a mask prototype that in combination with their particulate filtration medium, would rise up to the standards of an N95-style mask.
“I hit print, went home, came back (Tuesday) morning as the printer was finishing, pulled it off the printer, put it together and I broke down in tears because it worked,” Jansson said.
All the pieces are now in place to come up with a long-term 3D printable N95-style mask design that can be produced at scale, and also tested and verified for safety through an accredited particulate agency, Jansson said.
“We’re going by the book but obviously in an accelerated manner,” Jansson said. “We want that level of confidence; we’re holding ourselves to that standard and we’re going to create something that has the weight and gravity of ‘somebody could get really sick if this goes bad.’”
Although the masks are still in the design phase, MCT has plans for short term production through 3D additive manufacturing and within a week or two, using injection molding techniques to scale up production, said Ryan Martin, MCT chief executive officer.
These masks, Martin said, would be reusable, which means nurses and doctors could sterilize them in between use and switch out the filters.
"The filters are a lot less scarce than the actual masks so, this could be a big win," Martin said.
In the meantime, the new Makerspace Lab at Concordia has 30 3D printers with the capacity to produce 500 N95-style masks per week. The university is also coordinating a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for mask supplies, but also to encourage community members to register their 3D printers for mask production.
Concordia, which has worked closely with Jansson’s team, would share the file needed to 3D print masks with community members to fill the gap until larger companies can start their production lines, said Dr. Dan Sem, dean of Concordia’s Batterman School of Business. Local law enforcement would then provide community members with the materials and then retrieve the masks once they are printed, he added.
These masks have been designed with direct input from area medical professionals, but they have not been certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
“Our goal is to get these N95 prototypes produced and delivered as quickly as possible to keep the medical professionals using them as safe as possible,” Sem said. “The internal experts at the health care institutions are aware of the certification limitation and are doing their own assessments, but they need the masks now.”