NATICK, Mass. (April 23, 2012) -- Most of us have experienced the occasional workday that goes up in flames. For Peggy Auerbach, however, that's a normal occurrence.
As a textile technologist for the Ouellette Thermal Test Facility at Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, Auerbach knows plenty about fire and its effects. Her job is to test uniform and equipment materials to keep service members from suffering burns in the field.
"We do everything from very small quantities -- milligram quantities -- all the way up to full-scale garment testing here," Auerbach said. "It's a joint Army-Navy facility, so we share all of the test equipment."
The 8,100-square-foot facility, which opened in 2008, features four labs and a propane test cell, where four-second flash-fire testing can be done with eight burners on a full-scale manikin.
"It's an instrumented manikin," Auerbach said. "There (are) 123 channels. Each channel has a sensor attached to it."
Test results are run through computer models to predict second- and third-degree burns.
"What happens if you expose (a material) to a flame?" Auerbach said. "Does it continue to burn? How long does it continue to burn? Does it melt? Does it drip? Does it char?"
The propane test cell also has a burn pit to simulate grass fires for shelter testing, and a "traversing manikin" developed for the Navy by Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
"The manikin is motorized," Auerbach said. "It starts at one end and goes through the room. They actually can move those burners into different positions to simulate different (shipboard) scenarios."
In an era when improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, cause great concern for deployed service members, the facility's CO2 laser is a vital piece of equipment.
"The CO2 laser was purchased to simulate the thermal part of the IED," said Auerbach, "not the blast, just the thermal."
Auerbach has been at Ouellette since the beginning, and she has witnessed its evolution.
"I actually was on the design team," Auerbach said. "There (are) only four facilities in North America that have full-scale manikin testing. As far as I know, we're the only government facility that has this (ASTM F1930 testing) capability."
As Auerbach pointed out, the facility's staff of 10 was drawn from different disciplines.
"When we have problems," said Auerbach, "we have a lot of areas we can go to solve them."
According to Auerbach, work at the facility has already had an impact on service members in the field.
"Based on some of the testing we have done, fielded items have been redesigned to reduce predicted burn injury," Auerbach said. "In one instance, (Naval Air Systems Command) was able to pad a hook to prevent heat transfer that was indicating a third degree burn may be received."
In the future, Auerbach sees articulating manikins that simulate movement, female manikins, sensors on manikins' heads, hands and feet, and testing that involves vehicle mock-ups brought into the facility.
"I think one of the main functions of this facility is to be able to do standard tests, but to move beyond the standard tests, to develop tests that are more applicable," Auerbach said. "We have very different needs than the commercial market."