It was March 27, and the United States had just passed the 100,000 mark in reported cases of COVID-19 infection. It was now leading the world in number of cases. As terrifying as the virus is, the nation’s attention was riveted on the inadequate supply of protective face covers to stem the transmission. Online retailers and local home improvement stores, super centers and drugstore chains everywhere had been sold out for the past two months, overwhelmed by the rush to buy facial protection once the coronavirus had become world news.
The actual need for masks varied—there was no question that health care workers needed N95 respirator masks and disposable surgical masks, whereas the U.S. surgeon general said the average citizen did not need to wear a mask and explicitly discouraged the public from buying them for general use as recently as Feb. 29. But regardless of the true need, the demand was in the millions for all kinds of face coverings. The need and the demand only grew more acute as the pandemic’s toll escalated in March.
At opposite ends of the country, solutions came quickly. They came from a seemingly unlikely source, a community of special operations paratroopers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, and a more established group of experts in charge of designing combat clothing, uniforms and individual protective items for Soldiers at Natick, Massachusetts. And those are just two examples of how numerous Army communities have applied their professional expertise and personal dedication to help relieve the pressure of supplying specialized facial protective equipment for medical personnel and more ordinary face covers for going out in public.
As of May 6, the 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) (1st SFG (A)) at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle had made more than 5,000 total face covers in three different designs: an adult disposable version, a pediatric disposable version and a cloth reusable version. In addition, it put its 3D printing capabilities to use producing face shields for personnel at Madigan Army Medical Center, located on the base. Madigan is the Army’s second-largest medical treatment facility.
At Natick, home to the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center (CCDC SC), the Soldier Protection and Survivability Directorate has led the production of camouflage face covers, with an initial quantity of 10,000 to outfit Soldiers in basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia. The first of those masks arrived at Fort Benning in late April. As a result, not only has the Army been able to resume basic training and other activities during the pandemic, but face covers will become a permanent addition to Army gear.
The Soldier Center’s knowledge and expertise—notably in prototyping, testing, materials and textiles, and human factors—enabled the rapid design and development of six prototypes for face covers, followed by testing and then the selection of one prototype that Soldiers had rated highly for immediate development. CCDC SC also selected a second, also well-received prototype, for further development as a more permanent Army solution, in coordination with the Program Executive Office (PEO) for Soldier. Longer-term, PEO Soldier’s Project Manager for Soldier Survivability will produce what are being called Army Face Covers in high volumes for military personnel.
EYE TO EYE WITH OPPORTUNITY
The cloth face covers meet the intent of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that people cover their mouth and nose when they go out in public, or when it is not possible to meet social distancing protocols, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark Esper on April 5 directed the wearing of cloth face covers by anyone on DOD property, installations and facilities “when they cannot maintain six feet of social distance in public areas or work centers.”
The response to the obvious need was as swift as it gets. “The entire process of designing prototypes, material selection and down-selection to final face covering, to ramping up our in-house production team was completed in about 10 days,” said Molly Richards, a research chemical engineer on CCDC SC’s Chem-Bio Innovative Material and Ensemble Development Team. The production team, consisting of employees across three of the center’s six directorates, was making several hundred of the Army face covers a day, she said in mid-May.
In late March, the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) could not have been more pressing than in Washington state, where the first U.S. cases of COVID-19 infection were treated and the number of confirmed new cases climbed to over 400 a day. Within the 1st SFG (A) Group Support Battalion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, “there was a growing discussion on converting idle 3D printing capacity within military units to support producing COVID-19 items,” said Lt. Col. Christopher S. Jones, battalion commander.
At its two-year-old and still-growing fabrication facility, known as Makerspace, the 1st SFG (A) Group is accustomed to prototyping one-off parts for special operations requirements, such as 3D-printed tracheas to use in simulators for field medical training and navigation boards used by special operators during high-altitude, low-opening parachute drops.
But by March 25, a much less exotic item, the standard face cover, emerged as the most pressing need. Madigan and affiliated facilities together serve more than 100,000 active-duty service members, their families and retirees. Standard face covers were necessary for those with symptoms. The 1st SFG (A) parachute riggers would repurpose the five lightweight sewing machines they used to repair parachutes to assemble surgical masks. Battalion personnel would use their 3D printing resources and expertise to create prototypes for reusable respirator masks and face shields.
On March 31, 15 paratroopers began full production of the face covers.
“We are just trying to use the organic capabilities that 1st SFG (A) has in new and innovative ways in an effort to help keep our Soldiers, community and country safe in the fight against COVID,” said Master Sgt. Taylor Cathey, the battalion’s senior airdrop operations NCO.
The 1st SFG (A) wanted to honor the tradition of Special Operations Forces “to thrive in ambiguous situations and solve hard problems,” Jones said. “Everyone just pitched in immediately. Everyone understood how important it is.”
Makerspace has 3D printers and CMT (cold metal transfer) mills. Prototyping uses mostly polylactic acid (PLA), a staple material in 3D printing. PLA is a natural polymer that comes from renewable resources such as cornstarch or sugar cane and is a substitute for petroleum-based plastics. In addition, “we do have some capability to print with interwoven Kevlar or carbon fiber,” Jones said.
Initially the discussion of how the 1st SFG (A) could best contribute zeroed in on ventilator components, and the U.S. Special Operations Command put out a request for ideas via its Vulcan platform. The unit also prototyped and discussed the possibility of making N95 face respirators, but learned there were considerable difficulties involved due to limited availability of the three-layer filters.
It was increasingly clear that the most urgent need was to supply health care facilities with PPE. The private-sector Providence Health System, headquartered in the Seattle suburb of Renton, Washington, had just launched its 100 Million Mask Challenge, enlisting manufacturers of various kinds.
The battalion got input from the medical community through both official and informal channels; both Jones and Group Surgeon Rodd Marcum are married to registered nurses. The objective would be to use Madigan’s versatile surgical and sterilization wrap into a simple protective mask that patients could wear to reduce the risk of transmitting respiratory disease to other patients and clinical staff, or that staff could wear to extend the functional lifespan of critical PPE, such as respirators, which were in acutely short supply.
But before a needle could touch cloth, standards had to be set. Besides the materials that the Soldiers of the 1st SFG (A) would use, there were the questions of how to put together a face cover most efficiently, and how to ensure a sterile environment in which to make them.
The process—“getting all the material, getting the personnel together and really developing the product”—was the biggest challenge facing them, Cathey said. “How were we going to do it in assembly-line fashion so that we utilize the minimum number of people to do the maximum amount of masks each day. It’s been definitely a learning curve. We’ve got it pretty well refined now.”
COVER DOWN ON SAFETY
In short order, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jeremy Vann, allied trades warrant officer for the 1st SFG (A), had printed prototype face shields out of PLA, using his personal 3D printer and based on designs from the NIH 3D Print Exchange and the nonprofit Billings Clinic. Jones and his team put together a prototype face cover, using a sewing machine, to discuss with Marcum, his wife, who works at Madigan, and the group executive officer.
With guidance from the group’s preventive medicine team, the Soldiers set out to ensure that “work-site processes met infection control standards,” including how to properly sanitize the workstations before beginning full-scale production, how to monitor the health status of personnel, and production tracing, similar to how parachutes are packed and tracked for quality assurance and control.
“They’re very particular on safety, very particular on managing and oversight of who packs the chutes,” Jones said. “That transitions very easily to making the masks and figuring out, if something goes wrong, what went wrong in the process.”
The group developed the process in coordination with Chief Warrant Officer 3 Richmond Minton, the senior allied trades technology NCO on the I Corps G-4 (logistics) staff, and the 308th Brigade Support Battalion, which has access to additive manufacturing equipment. Minton, in turn, worked with the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command (MRDC), as the Army focal point and sponsor for COVID-19 projects, to get its approval for the process, Jones said.
The masks and face covers are intended solely for Madigan and its service network. For the three cloth masks, tested and approved by Madigan’s industrial hygiene department, the material is hospital-provided sterilization wrap with a bacterial filtration efficiency of 98.9 to 99.9 percent. For the face shield headbands, “we’re using the NIH [National Institutes of Health] 3D Print Exchange website for approved designs (clinically reviewed by the Veterans Health Administration) and using on-hand PLA,” Jones said.
“We will continue to make masks as long as there continues to be a need,” and will continuously refine the product designs and production process with feedback from medical employees, said Cathey. “If production numbers meet the demand identified by hospital leadership, it is feasible that masks might be redirected to other priority locations and staff,” Jones said, “consistent with the updated recommendations to wear cloth face coverings when physical distancing is not feasible.”
When Esper authorized DOD personnel to wear cloth face covers, the U.S. Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center was the obvious candidate to develop an Armywide solution. The center represents one of eight major areas of competency for CCDC, a subordinate command of U.S. Army Futures Command.
Like every other organization with the coronavirus in its midst, the Army had to regroup to consider how to combat it. Among other actions, in early April the Army put a two-week hold on sending recruits to basic training. But training new recruits couldn’t stop forever.
“During this crisis, it is crucial for the security of the nation to keep our Soldiers protected, healthy and ready to support COVID-19 response efforts and national defense,” said Douglas Tamilio, director of the Soldier Center. “We responded very quickly to make an Army-acceptable solution to the requirement for face coverings.
“Our job is the research, development and early engineering of the solution and building a technical data package,” Tamilio explained, whereas production is in the hands of PEO Soldier and the Defense Logistics Agency. “We leveraged all our resources here, and a talented group of our employees worked hard to rapidly make the initial 10,000 face coverings to support training at the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning,” he said.
QUICK TIME, MASK
“Resources” covers a rich landscape of expertise and experience at CCDC Soldier Center: clothing designers, material scientists, fabric workers and equipment specialists, among other specialties. They are “experts at the design and fabrication of prototype clothing, individual protection items and equipment, personnel airdrop systems, cargo airdrop, and soft-wall shelter systems, along with other military-unique textile-based items,” said Annette LaFleur, who leads the design, pattern and prototype team.
In response to the enormous need for face covers, “designers quickly brainstormed, sketched, patterned and fabricated prototypes in one weekend, while material scientists, textile technologists and engineers coordinated the test and evaluation of potential materials,” she said.
LaFleur’s team developed an array of potential prototype systems encompassing six designs, taking into account integration with eyewear and helmets, the face cover’s ability to stay in place and adjustability to various head sizes and face shapes, she said.
The Human Factors Team conducted an assessment of the prototypes using local research volunteers. The design that the Soldier Center selected for fabrication had the highest Soldier acceptance, with consideration for ease of manufacturing. A second design, also highly accepted, is being further developed rapidly as a more permanent Army solution.
Having selected the materials to use, the team rapidly cut and sewed quantities of the six designs to get Soldiers’ feedback. The design selected was ready for use without improvements.
PIVOT TO PRODUCTION
While the Soldier Center’s own personnel took on the job of fabricating the first 10,000 face covers, its established role in developing solutions is to design and prototype them, not produce the items. The Army prepared to segue into long-range production using the procurement processes established for other textile-based items, LaFleur said.
“There is a wide base of cut-and-sew manufacturers within the USA, which the Army uses to manufacture textile-based items for the warfighter,” she explained. As with the production of established clothing items, all materials will comply with the Berry Amendment requirement that they be sourced and manufactured in the United States. “We also have military-specific design considerations” of form, fit and function, LeFleur said.
Unlike many other Army uniform items, the face coverings will not be treated with extra chemical finishes or processes, she said. “There is no bug repellent or similar treatment that could be hazardous.”
That’s not to say that all production has shifted from grass-roots efforts to a factory setting.
Now, in addition to coordinating its efforts with the Navy and other Army agencies, the CCDC SC is making its technical data package for the first face cover available to units that have the capability to produce them, said Tamilio.
THE NEXT BIG NEED
To say that efforts to respond to the urgent and enormous need for effective face coverings have been a learning experience is an understatement on a pandemic scale.
“With this initiative, we want to look at what do we do the next time? Maybe it’s not a pandemic, it’s something else,” Jones said. “Next time there’s an emergent need, how do we use organic capability” to solve the problem?
More specifically for 3D printing and additive manufacturing, “How do we, at the tactical level, better link into Army capability? We just try to prototype and innovate a new way from the bottom up. We aren’t a manufacturing capability.”
Whatever the scale of production—“whether we make one mask or a million masks,” Jones said—“the great part is in the doing it—to get a solution and do our part.”
Read the full article in the Summer 2020 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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