Austin Innovation is scaling the production of medical face shields from their lab in Trail, BC as a stopgap measure to meet the demand for COVID-19-specific personal protective equipment (PPE).
The new entity, located in the lower level of Austin Engineering, is part of the collaborative team manufacturing PPE for the medical community and other essential service providers responding to COVID-19. Their efforts to equip doctors and nurses with face shields have now expanded to fit other first responders and critical essential service workers in the Kootenay Boundary region.
“We were brought onto an existing team, led by Dr. Michael Vance, who was tasked with sourcing PPE for his teams at Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital and Kootenay Lake Hospital. He initiated the production of face shields in response to the growing shortage,” explains Mary Austin, CEO of Austin Innovation. “We’re working as an integrated Trail team with adaptive design techniques based on feedback from the medical community. We’ve been able to scale production to several hundred shields a day. Our small assembly team safely manufactures the PPE under social distancing protocols at the Austin Innovation lab and a Selkirk College affiliated lab. The response from the community so far has been tremendous.”
Dr. Vance established the initial design team partnership of Nelson engineer Lee Wasilenko, cofounder of Orange Bridge Studios Inc. and Anevis Solutions GmbH, and his fellow Nelson Tech & Knowledge Workers. They were further supported by Jason Taylor, an instructor and researcher with the Applied Research and Innovation Centre at Selkirk College. The team began 3D printing shields and more at the end of March and have established themselves under the name: Kootenay Makers for COVID-19 PPE Production, a regional initiative funded by the community. Austin Innovation was later contacted and a core production team was quickly assembled. With support from Dr. Vance, and Ingrid Hope of Hall Printing, Taylor and Austin Engineering Principal Engineer Roger Austin used a laser cutter to prototype a face shield. As the community rallied, laser cutting techniques were employed both in-house and at Taylor’s lab to speed up production.
“These face shields are an important aspect of the recommended PPE list for those caring for COVID-19 patients,” explains Dr. Vance. “Some clinics and staff had zero shields, so producing these has definitely helped alleviate some healthcare staff anxiety.”
Austin Innovation, local businesses, and individuals have all donated supplies. The immediate response to the project was crucial in ensuring the masks could be produced and delivered in a timely manner.
“I was blown away by the response from the area’s innovators,” adds Vance. “They took the reins on this project and surpassed any expectations I had for timeline and production numbers. They were also vital in refining the product to make the shields as useful as possible.”
After hearing from medical professionals last week, Austin Innovation adapted the shield design and, together with Taylor, began rapid production. New iterations of the design were made based on fit, functionality, and comfort tailored to the end user. Since then, Austin Innovation’s efforts have seen approximately 1,300 shields manufactured and delivered to Kootenay Boundary doctors, nurses and other supporting health care workers, RCMP officers, firefighters, search and rescue, postal workers and food bank employees. But the work is not done.
The team has shared its design and production techniques with its partners at UBC Vancouver, who are coordinating epidemiology with national and international teams. Austin Innovation also shared the team’s design and production techniques with the Provincial Health Services Authority.
“The way that our team has created a design template and manufacturing style here in the Kootenays is being shared across the province and with international contacts,” explains Austin. “I think we’ve realized that what was created when the former MIDAS (now transitioned into Selkirk Technology Access Centre) came together – the capacity building, the connections, and the trust – has all come to fruition. We’ve all been trained by Jason, we’ve all worked with Amber Hayes (technology and innovation specialist), we’re friends with Pilar Portela (i4C) and Ingrid Hope (Hall Printing) – and now our relationships and knowledge are all coming into play. We were able to immediately collaborate effectively; that component is fascinating.”
Matt Pommer is a member of the Austin Innovation production line team. The Austin Engineering Field Inspector was seconded to help with the demands the sister organization is facing.
“We use the laser cutter to cut 1/4 inch MDF wood sheets, we cut out the frames for the head shields, and then we paint them so that you can wipe
them clean,” he explains. “Jason makes the clear shields in his lab and drops them off. And then we attach elastic to the head band. As of last week we’re flat packing, so we’re just leaving the frame with the elastic on it separate from the shields and letting the end user put them together.”
Pommer is supported by Administrator Theresa Penney, who fields requests, secures and manages shared inventory, and safely delivers the masks to all recipients; additionally, husband and wife assembly crew Doug and Colleen Jones have volunteered their time since day one.
“It’s rewarding,” says Pommer. “When you see pictures of people using them it feels great.”