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Carderock Engineers Work to Offset Face-Covering Shortage

By Benjamin McKnight III, NSWCCD Public Affairs | May 6, 2020

The world is continuing to adjust to the new normal that has come with the spread of COVID-19 as governments across the globe have instituted policies geared toward flattening the curve.

Maryland is one of many states to order residents to wear face coverings in highly populated environments such as retail stores and public transportation. The Secretary of Defense and the Navy put out similar guidance, requiring all individuals on DoD property to wear a form of face covering when they are not able to maintain the suggested six feet of social distancing. Although Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division has operated under a maximum telework environment for nearly two months, the command remains open to accommodate for the employees that still need to access the base for their work-related tasks.

To help employees abide by the current workplace practice, Carderock’s Platform Integrity and Corporate Operations Departments have collaborated to manufacture face coverings that Carderock employees can now receive through the Shop Stores Program. Dave Drazen, Carderock’s Chief Technology Officer, said that when the command’s leadership team started meeting to discuss COVID-19 response efforts, the main priority was to keep employees safe while continuing to meet mission-essential objectives.

“Part of that discussion was, ‘Why don’t we provide face coverings for people who work at Carderock and need to come on base?’” he said. “We should be able to provide that capability to people.”

After considerable research of protection ideas shared by various entities across the world, ranging from innovative individuals, to government and non-government organizations, an initial design of a face mask frame kit was chosen. According to Drazen, Naval Sea Systems Command is authorizing the use of Naval Innovative Science and Engineering (NISE) dollars to fund research and development (R&D) associated with COVID-19 relief work by subordinate commands.

Dr. Cynthia Waters, the Senior Scientific Technical Manager for Advanced Manufacturing Materials at Carderock, said that Carderock is uniquely qualified for R&D on the materials and manufacturing needed for these and other face coverings.

“For these particular masks, we looked to many great partners for resources,” Waters said. “While Carderock has the experience with materials and product characterization, this manufacturing innovation ecosystem is already putting out a multitude of solutions, our challenge is to match performance and design requirements to our needs.”

The chosen mask was based on a frame designed and submitted by an additive manufacturing engineer named Mark Fuller, who shared his design on National Institutes of Health’s 3D print exchange, which has a special collection of designs dedicated to COVID-19 supply chain response. Although this face covering is not designed to be a replacement for the N-95 mask, NIH designated the design as optimized for community use, helping to prevent a person who potentially has the virus from spreading it. Face mask frame kits include filter material, although individuals can use their own filter material, such as cloth. Attachment points, resembling cleats, on the corners of the mask support elastic string or rubber bands that help to secure the filter material in place and serve to hold the assembled covering on a person’s face.

Upon reviewing the Technical Data Package for the frame design, additive manufacturing machines were properly prepared, and printing was able to begin. As commercial retailers are experiencing shortages in their stocks of masks and other coverings, the timing of this effort intends to minimize the burden on Carderock employees to find adequate face coverings.

Dave Newborn, an engineer in the Maritime, Aviation, and Unmanned Undersea Systems Division, said that due to the dynamic and volatile nature of the current COVID-19 pandemic, diverse varieties of potential solutions are necessary to match the wide range of experiences of our workforce. The face mask frame kits, as well as do-it-yourself face covering options that are already being used by some of the workforce, are examples of how people can take small actions to improve the collective safety and health during this pandemic.

“We’re dealing with a complex adaptive system, and you have to probe it from multiple directions to make a positive impact on that system,” said Newborn, who is one of the leaders of Carderock’s COVID-19 Advanced Manufacturing Rapid Response team. “There is very, very low probability of perfect, elegant, or single solutions.”

With both the Platform Integrity Department and the Corporate Operations Department combining efforts, at times, up to 14 printers were running across base. Scott Ziv, an engineer in Carderock’s Additive Manufacturing Branch is helping facilitate the printing effort for the Platform Integrity Department through planning, program and personnel management and funds handling. The Manufacturing, Knowledge and Education (MAKE) Lab was not originally designed to produce the 3000 masks requested by the command, but unique circumstances have shifted mission sets, and the engineers doing the work are adjusting along with it.

“We’re rapidly learning the process of doing production and how to reduce cost and personnel exposure while maintaining the same throughput,” Ziv said, adding that his department has maintained an average output capacity of 450 mask frames per day.

Throughout the process, Ziv has seen numerous materials become unavailable that he never thought would be. Items such as polycarbonate, which is used for the plastic on face shields, or elastic to complete the masks, are becoming harder to find. One of those components are air filters, which he said they were able to order. The group hopes to experiment with applying air filters to designs of face coverings to provide an enhanced option for employees who meet certain requirements. Other filtration methods are being researched, but availability continues to be the primary crux of further developments.

“We’ve got to be ahead of the curve in what we need because by the time we know we need it, we might not be able to get it,” Ziv said.

The frames are available through the Shop Stores program, therefore employees will be able to obtain them at no cost, a benefit to those whose duties require them to come on site. Drazen is confident that the amount printed will meet the needs of the command. However, should more frames be needed, he said that the flexibility given by headquarters’ guidance and the improved overnight printing operation Ziv enacted will keep the command prepared.

 “The important thing is that we’re ever-improving our ability to develop these things and leveraging that to improve our technical work,” Drazen said “We’re doing our best to keep our employees safe while they’re still out supporting the fleet.”