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While The World Stopped Engineers Stepped Up

Early in March, the Statler College had been engrossed in making the vision of the first prototyping center on campus a reality. Groups gathered to explore options for new designs and art to accompany the modern space of the Innovation Hub that was previously home to classrooms in the west wing of the Engineering Sciences building. The finishing touches were beginning to come together, equipment arrived for the new 3D metal printing and smart manufacturing lab, and doors were open for students to explore entrepreneurial opportunities and bring their dreams to life. On March 11, the world quickly turned upside down and the grand opening was brought to a halt.

Story by Olivia Miller, Communications Specialist
Photos by Innovation Hub Staff and WVU Medicine Staff

As news of coronavirus cases spreading across the United States, West Virginia University campuses closed and so too did the doors of the Innovation Hub. Stockpiles of medical gear were quickly being depleted in the local community, and a new door opened for the Innovation Hub. Engineers on staff in the Innovation Hub did not stand by and watch their community struggle to find personal protective equipment, instead they sprang into action and put their expertise to use to help supplement the shortfall of critical medical gear.

Responding to the needs of those on the front lines in their own backyard...

Students helping each other put on personal protective gear

...the team began small, producing and testing surgical mask extenders to alleviate the pain caused by wearing masks. As the need grew, so too did cross-campus collaboration. Members of the School of Design and Community Development set out on a project to make 10,000 face masks, and our engineers assisted in this effort by testing materials for surgical grade masks to deliver the best protection possible with the resources readily available.

In another room, other team members could be found responding to larger needs — making critical elements like face shields and intubation boxes to protect healthcare workers who had to perform tasks that put them at a greater risk for exposure to the virus. Shortly thereafter, the Innovation Hub staff members were called on by the West Virginia National Guard to help ramp up testing across the state, and so production began on 3D printers for swab sticks, an essential element for testing kits.

Since this humanitarian effort began in early March, the work hasn’t slowed — in fact, most would argue it had just begun. In this extraordinary time, the Innovation Hub has established themselves with a new purpose in the community – ready to serve West Virginia and the world. The story of this massive undertaking is one of the many showcasing the unification of the scientific community, with new partnerships formed at every step to respond to the new challenges brought forth by the pandemic.

Kelsey Crawford working in the custom manufacturing workroom

Kelsey Crawford, Innovation Hub Shop Manager of Custom Manufacturing Workroom

“Everyone has been extremely grateful for the efforts that everyone is doing at WVU. We have had nurses and doctors almost in tears as they thank us.”

Hitting close to home

Josh Bintrim working in the rapid prototyping workroom Josh Bintrim

It all started on March 27th, says Josh Bintrim as he recalls closing down operations in the Innovation Hub. Bintrim, an industrial engineering alumnus and shop manager, had been preparing for a work from home stint when he felt there was something more he could be doing to help healthcare workers. At the time, Bintrim’s wife, Heather, a nurse in the emergency department at Ruby Memorial was 23 weeks pregnant with their second child.

“She has an iron will and did not complain once,” Bintrim said. “So, it was kind of personal for me. Naturally, we also have a lot of friends that work at WVU Medicine.”

Kelsey CrawfordBintrim, along with Kelsey Crawford, also a shop manager, began by brainstorming and testing designs on various pieces of equipment for different types of protective gear. The process was challenging. Bintrim and Crawford needed to figure out how to modify the designs so they could be produced in large amounts in a short period of time.

“It started with face shields and then we moved to masks and began exploring materials for those. Then, while we were doing that we were working on the extenders,” Crawford said. “We sampled them out to Josh’s wife and a few of my friends who are in the medical field and they loved them. Once productions began on the extenders, they really didn’t stop.”

To protect themselves and others from exposure to COVID-19, healthcare professionals were required to wear face masks throughout the duration of their shift. This necessary change brought with it its own set of problems — the bands attached to the masks cause irritation to the skin behind the ears, making them uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time.

The mask extenders created by Bintrim and Crawford reduce the pressure behind the ears, affording the user an increased measure of comfort.

“The responses were overwhelmingly positive, and people were incredibly thankful,” Bintrim said. “The hardest part has been trying to tell everyone that we are the ones that are thankful for what they do and for the risks that they take by simply going to work every day. We are just trying our best to support them in the fight."

“The hardest part has been trying to tell everyone that we are the ones that are thankful for what they do and for the risks that they take by simply going to work every day. We are just trying our best to support them in the fight.”

An Unexpected end to the semester

Logan Forquer, student worker, wears the face shield created by the Innovation Hub.

Logan Forquer, student worker

Logan ForquerWhen Logan Forquer, a junior studying mechanical engineering, began working in the Innovation Hub in January, he never imagined he would be a part of a critical effort to supply personal protective equipment to local healthcare facilities in the state.

After Crawford and Bintrim solidified the final design for face shields, which underwent at least 15 different iterations, Forquer took his post at the WaterJet and began cutting the pieces needed to assemble them.

In the span of a month, he had produced around 5,000 face shields for the hospital, while also balancing his workload required from taking five classes in the Statler College.

“At times it was a little hard to keep track of what needed to be done for class, but it was more manageable because it was all online,” Forquer said.

Forquer set his workstation up to optimize his time working in the Innovation Hub. He figured out that by rigging a GoPro above the WaterJet, he could watch a live view of the machine while working in the next room to assist other staff members, or study for his final exams.

Without the help of help of Todd Hamrick, teaching assistant professor of fundamentals of engineering, though, Forquer explained that the high volume of face shields produced would not have been possible. While he was cutting out the larger pieces of the shield, Hamrick was in another lab using a small routing table to produce a small attachment piece that was difficult to produce on the WaterJet.

“It’s bigger than anything I could have ever imagined,” Forquer said. “It’s been a great experience. I’ve learned how to use so many pieces of equipment we have at the Innovation Hub. It’s been so great to help the community.”

“I think it’d be really nice to work in a shop like the Innovation Hub where I can put my engineering knowledge to use, design things and work with guys on the floor to make them.”

Creativity in Crisis

Woman practicing intubations using an intubation box

Teams from WVU Medicine practiced COVID-19 intubations using the intubation box created in the Innovation Hub. Intubation boxes help decrease aerosol spread from infected patients.

Lee Mullett

Lee Mullet, a teaching assistant professor and interior design program coordinator in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design at WVU, fretted about her husband, Dr. Chuck Mullett, chair of the Department of Pediatrics, contracting the coronavirus. After reading a report about intubation boxes to protect doctors, she forwarded the information to her husband, who knew that Dr. Pavithra Ellison, associate professor of pediatric anesthesiology, had been worried about exposure to the deadly virus, as well.

Physicians are at high risk for exposure to COVID-19 as they intubate patients who need to be put on ventilators, potentially releasing virus-carrying particles, but intubation boxes capture those aerosolized particles; the boxes are also used by anesthesiologists and respiratory therapists, in critical care medicine and the emergency department.

Lee Mullett had toured the Innovation Hub lab at the Statler College last year. Instead of just worrying, she acted and reached out to Cilento, during the first days of the University’s shutdown because of the virus. Cilento responded that the Hub would assist.

Jim Hall working on an intubation box

Jim Hall, Chemical Engineering Senior Lab Instrumentation Specialist

To begin making prototypes of the transparent boxes, Innovation Hub shop managers Bintrim and Crawford reached out to Jim Hall, a chemical engineering senior lab instrumentation specialist with more than 35 years of experience as a machinist.

The team began by consulting with medical professionals at the WVU School of Medicine to ensure that the final product would be durable, ergonomically comfortable and functional, compatible with sterilizing techniques and perhaps most importantly, provide adequate protection. The design needed to include access ports to allow the physician to perform the intubation and also have a perfect seal to prevent any scrapes or cuts to both medical personnel and patients.

Virtual meetings allowed the Hub to create only one prototype iteration before production began. Hall estimated that after working through the learning curve, one intubation box takes approximately 30 minutes to make.

The boxes were delivered in a week.

Living up to the land-grant mission

Kolin Brown creating testing swabs

Kolin Brown, Innovation Hub Assistant Director, creating testing swabs

Being called on by the West Virginia National Guard and state officials to help meet demands for testing in the state was not a request to be taken lightly. Moving quickly and efficiently, the Innovation Hub managers stepped up and offered to make prototypes of swabs to be tested and revised with the guidance of medical professionals at WVU Medicine.

“Our Innovation Hub managers stepped up and said, ‘Let’s use the Innovation Hub to make some prototypes,’” Cilento said. “We were just thinking of how we could help the hospital through the pandemic, especially with the shortage of critical supplies.”

Swabs — which resemble flexible Q-tips — are inserted into the nose and through to the back of the throat where a specimen is collected onto the swab. The swab is removed, placed in a vial with sterile fluid and sent to a laboratory for testing.

It’s not for the squeamish, but swabs are a universal necessity and most coronavirus tests depend on a continuous supply of swabs. Swab tests check for active infections, unlike an antibody test that draws blood to see if a person has recovered from the virus.

Through an agreement between WVU Medicine, the Statler College, and Formlabs, a 3D-printing technology developer and manufacturer based in Somerville, Massachusetts, the Innovation Hub was able to produce 10,000 swabs weekly.

WVU’s existing relationship with Formlabs, in which the company’s printers have been used by the Statler College to print jigs and fixtures, helped accelerate a smooth process in producing the swabs, said Max Lobovsky, Formlabs CEO and co-founder.

Mass production of the swabs enabled the West Virginia National Guard to test more residents across the state at a greater pace and scale.

“We have been very fortunate to have the right people, the right equipment and the right connections at the right time to be able to do this. If the shutdown had happened a couple of months earlier, I am not sure we could have been able to do as much as we did.”

An opportunity to make a difference

From late March to July 1, the Innovation Hub produced an estimated 25,714 individual pieces of personal protective equipment. While the majority of the medical gear created was supplied to the WVU Medicine Network of hospitals, some gear traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to those in need in Ireland.

Gene CilentoAfter the Innovation Hub publicly released the templates to create surgical mask extenders, the word spread quickly. Gene Cilento, dean emeritus and director of the Innovation Hub, spent the next several days fielding phone calls and emails from coast to coast. The calls varied from individuals making facemasks from their home to large hospitals looking for mask extenders for their workers.

“The bottom line is that the Innovation Hub was still coming online but we saw an opportunity to help the medical profession in a critical time of need,” Cilento said. It was a way to help our WVU medical community do their jobs.”

The coordinated effort resulted in approximately 20,450 mask extenders, 4,660 face shields, 94 intubation boxes and 510 custom face shields designed for optometrists.

Kolin Brown“Everything that has been done is by a team of people. There were multiple people who were working together to get things done,” said Kolin Brown, assistant director of the Innovation Hub. “We have been very fortunate to have the right people, the right equipment and the right connections at the right time to be able to do this. If the shutdown had happened a couple of months earlier, I am not sure we could have been able to do as much as we did.”

PPE CREATED

  • 20,450 Mask Extenders
  • 4,660 Face Shields
  • 94 Intubation Boxes
  • 510 Custom Face Shields

DISTRIBUTION WITHIN WEST VIRGINIA

Mask Extenders

  • 13,700 Morgantown, WV
  • 600 Glen Dale, WV
  • 500 Bridgeport, WV
  • 300 Parsons, WV
  • 200 Newburg, WV
  • 200 Vienna, WV
Total = 15,500

Intubation Boxes

  • 50 Morgantown, WV
  • 15 Bridgeport, WV
  • 12 Martinsburg, WV
  • 8 Clarksburg, WV
  • 8 Glen Dale, WV
  • 1 Parsons, WV
Total = 94

Mask Extender Templates

  • Morgantown, WV
  • Martinsburg, WV

Face Shields

  • 3,390 Morgantown, WV
  • 300 Hamlin, WV
  • 250 Grantsville, WV
  • 250 Parsons, WV
  • 150 Fairmont, WV
  • 100 Princeton, WV
  • 100 Martinsburg, WV
  • 100 Newburg, WV
Total 4,660

Custom Face Shields (Loupe)

  • 510 Morgantown, WV

DISTRIBUTION ACROSS THE U.S.

  • Ontario, CA - 25 mask extenders
  • Ft. Collins, CO - 300 mask extenders
  • Estero, FL - 200 mask extenders
  • Terra Haute, IN - 20 face shields
  • Terra Haute, IN - 50 mask extenders
  • Winchester, KY - 600 mask extenders
  • Groton, MA - 25 mask extenders
  • Reading, MA - 150 mask extenders
  • Somerset, NJ - 500 mask extenders
  • Bayside, NY - 500 mask extenders
  • Johnson City, NY - 200 mask extenders
  • Ohio - Template for mask extenders
  • Uniontown, Pa - Template for mask extenders
  • Washington, PA - 1,000 mask extenders
  • Murfreesboro, TN - 200 mask extenders
  • Dallas, TX - 1,000 mask extenders
  • Wyoming - Template for intubation box

DISTRIBUTION ACROSS THE SEA

  • United Kingdom - Template for mask extenders
  • Co Galway, Ireland - 200 mask extenders
  • Co Galway, Ireland - Template for mask extenders

Alumni getting in the game

Pete Hinkey and a mask extender

(Left) Pete Hinkey, a 2016 mechanical engineering graduate and design engineer at Rifton Equipment. (Right) The injection mold created by Rifton allowed the mask extenders to be produced more quickly to support healthcare workers. (Submitted Photo)

When Pete Hinkey, a 2016 mechanical engineering graduate, received a text message from his boss about the University of Pittsburgh’s coronavirus research efforts, there was some playful teasing about what WVU may or may not be doing in the humanitarian effort against the virus.

Generations of WVU sports fans can imagine that this accusation was not taken lightly.

“I did some digging and the first thing I came across was an article about the work of the Innovation Hub, so I sent it right back to him as kind of a fun project,” said Hinkey, now a design engineer at Rifton Equipment, a manufacturer of adaptive equipment for children and adults with disabilities.

In his initial Google search, Hinkey found that surgical mask extenders were being produced in the Innovation Hub in the Statler College to relieve the reported pain behind the ears caused by wearing surgical masks for a long period of time. With this new information, Hinkey turned to Rifton Equipment’s tool and die shop to make a plastic injection molding tool — with design credit to WVU engineering, of course — to help create the mask extenders at a quicker rate.

With the quick-change injection molding system used at Rifton Equipment, this allows for new tools to be turned around quickly and ready for production in just a few days, as well as shortening setup and run-time for production jobs.

“The willingness of our alum and Rifton to help in this humanitarian effort has greatly extended the ability of the Innovation Hub to provide mask extenders to a much wider user base nationally,” Cilento said.

Working with the team at the Innovation Hub, Rifton built the injection mold at its Farmington, Pennsylvania, plant to produce the mask extenders. The new relationship formed will keep the door open for future projects to support the University hospital network.

When asked whether or not Hinkey had the chance to rub some WVU salt in the metaphorical Pitt wound, he chose to take the admirable route of being a good sport.

“It’s all friendly competition,” Hinkey said, referring to the mini-Backyard Brawl unfolding at Rifton. “But I’ll be happy to explain if he asks me how WVU got design credit on our injection molded parts!”

The future of the Innovation Hub

A circle of decorative words around the text "Producing 6,000 face shields for West Virginia University". The dcorative words say community, forward, problem solving, education, technology, growing, development, design, the future, together, etc.

In just a few months, the Innovation Hub staff demonstrated that they are a source of innovation and prototype development, not just for the University, but for the state of West Virginia as a whole.

“The University has been through a major shakeup because of the pandemic,” Brown said. “Everything that was normal operations had to stop. However, I feel that the Statler College and the Innovation Hub have gone back to the roots of the University to show that we are a resource for the state.”

When students, teachers and staff are back on campus, the real mission of the Innovation Hub to develop students into engineers and entrepreneurs will resume. Students will be able to use the Innovation Hub as a place for learning, problem-solving, design, fabrication and prototype creation.

“By bringing together our equipment and our staff, we are showing that we are here for the state, even in times of crisis,” Brown continued. “We often see the University as a place for education but really it is more than that, and I think we have demonstrated what we can, and that we can do more to improve the state and its individual communities in the new normal.”