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NEWS | July 9, 2020

Eye on Innovation: NNSY Takes on Innovative Solutions during COVID-19 Pandemic By Producing Face Shields

By Kristi Britt, Public Affairs Specialist

Innovative individuals across Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY) have come together in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic to use additive manufacturing (AM) to produce face shields, meeting the challenge of the crisis head-on and providing equipment for their fellow shipyarders.

In Mid-March, NAVSEA reached out to Innovation Programs at the shipyards as well as other departments across NAVSEA to assess the corporation’s AM capability to produce personal protective equipment (PPE) so that workers could be properly fitted for the job while safely maneuvering through the current environment. Simultaneously, requests began pouring in from innovative individuals across NNSY with the strong desire to assist in PPE development and production efforts.

“It was a developing situation with COVID-19 and the growing concern for the need of PPE to continue daily service. We saw the need and began gauging each of the shipyard’s AM labs to scope their availability, capacity, and material inventory,” said NNSY Technology Insertion Manager Dale Berkley. “It became a group effort to answer the call and we began formalizing printing at the end of March.”

The face shields are composed of four parts: a headband to hold a clear-plastic shield, an elastic strap, and a reinforcement clip at the bottom to strengthen the plastic’s curve. The NNSY Technology & Innovation (T&I) Lab joined with AM labs across the shipyard, including the Nuclear Mechanical Group (Code 930N), Non-Nuclear Mechanical Group (Code 930), Non-Nuclear Inspection Division (Code 133), Carrier Programs (Code 361), Radiological Engineering Division (Code 105.2), and Nuclear Special Emphasis Division (Code 2320.6) to begin researching designs approved by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

With alignment on a single approved design for the face shields, the labs took charge on their assignments and hit the ground running, printing the headbands and reinforcement clips using desktop, industrial, and resin three-dimensional (3-D) printers. The Nuclear Fluid Systems and Mechanical Engineering Division (Code 2320) and the NNSY T&I Lab handled printer material orders to ensure the teams had what they needed to get the job done as quickly as possible to meet their ramped up production schedule. Finally, once the clips and headbands were completed, they were turned over to the Production Resource Department (Code 900), Facilities Department (Code 980), Pipefitting Group (Code 960), and the SIOP Program Management Office (PMO) who developed the clear-plastic shields – finalizing assembling of the product and distributing them across the shipyard, as well as to local partners.

“As a team, we were able to take these designs and iron out the printing and assembly process, testing and perfecting it so that we were able to make these masks as quickly as possible,” said Code 930 Nuclear Continuious Training and Development (CTD) Coordinator Kyle Cooper. “It’s been a learning experience for everyone. We were able to cut down the printing of headbands themselves down to 57 minutes which initially was three and a half hours. It came down to trial and error, sharing our input and working towards making the best product possible.”

“This is a true testament to the teamwork here at NNSY, everyone coming together to provide their input and services with a common goal in mind,” said NNSY T&I Community of Practice (CoP) Lead and AM Subcommittee Lead Jessica Roberts. “It was a challenge we hadn’t really faced before to this degree as this was the first time all the AM labs across the shipyard had come together for a single project. So many departments needed to be aligned and understand each other’s abilities and what they would be bringing to the table. It was an evolving process and communication was key to ensure everything went as smoothly as possible.”

Code 133 Non-Nuclear Inspection Division’s Adam and Joel Seamster used their large-capacity AM Lab, composed of over 20 desktop printers, to mass-produce headbands and clips. They helped ensure the technical aspect of the job was handled, working with the various labs to optimize the selected design for quicker and more cost effective printing, as well as testing materials for the best quality.

NNSY T&I Lab’s James Keim noted that this was a great experience to be able to work together with others within the shipyard for a common goal – to protect their fellow shipyarders.  “While the waterfront was working to adapt to the new constraints created by COVID-19, the Innovation Program wanted to find ways to alleviate that burden and prevent it from getting worse. When it was evident that PPE was becoming scarce, it was clear that it was an immediate action we could take. We did not want to wait for the requests to come in because by then it would be too late. It made more sense to us to be ready with a stockpile for when the need hit. As for starting the process, we looked to what other groups had started. Since Virginia was not hit as hard, as fast as other states, we were able to make use of other’s experience to make ours smoother. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) had actually started a collection of PPE designs that they approved. We chose one as a starting point and adjusted our print parameters and materials until we came up with a print package that worked best for us.”

He added, “This truly was a team effort. There was a ton of eagerness across the board to get started and assist. We have many in the AM community with varied experience. When we were optimizing our prints, we made sure any improvements we found went out to all the other labs so they could try them. As material shortages hit us, we got together to prioritize where our resources went to make sure we had the highest production possible.” 

“Code 361 has been pursuing efforts in AM for quite some time in order to quickly design and prototype tooling required to complete special emphasis work,” said Code 2360.6 Nuclear Engineer Daniel Miller. “When there was a call to action, we were there to assist. Code 361 has been working closely with Code 105.2 and Code 2320, allowing for a multi-organization response to support those on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response. We were able to break down everyone’s role and responsibility and learn from one-another.”

Miller added, “I think I can speak for the whole team when I say that we felt a little helpless at the start of this pandemic.  It felt like there was nothing that we could do to stop what was happening in our country and around the world.  Therefore, when the 3D Printing COP reached out for help, we all jumped at the opportunity to try to make a difference. We wanted to help ease the worries of our shipyard and of our community in any way we could.”

“This was a partnership that provided a resource stream of this vital equipment for our community,” said PMO Program Integrator Jason Markle. “We were able to maintain a flow of fabrication materials, inventory levels, and coordinating storage, distribution, and supply lines. Each code and each team member had a part to play to ensure the success of the mission.” 

Keim added, “Ultimately together the printer teams were able to make almost 2,000 shields for our workforce which I see as a win. It helped bridge the gap until the sail loft was able to start producing cloth masks. Through the process, I learned a lot.  Most of my previous efforts were limited prototypes that I would normally only have to print a few times. Mass-producing a part added an extra layer of complexity. Normally I would focus on the form, fit, and function of my prints. These shields required me to take a much harder look at ways to reduce time and material costs without taking away from the quality. This is optimization experience that I can take into all of my future prints.”

Markle shared that in addition to providing PPE to the shipyard at large, the team was able to deliver two batches of face shields to the Portsmouth Naval Hospital for testing and use. “This effort readied NNSY to be called upon to lend our aid for equipment supply to those who need it in the community at large,” he said.

Roberts said, “This joint effort directly services the mission of the fleet. It was very powerful and inspiring to this group jump into the effort so enthusiastically. Watching everyone come together, bring their own talents to the table, and grow with this task was incredible to me. I look forward to what this team will accomplish in the future.”