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Fleet Readiness Center Southeast (FRCSE) recently stepped up to support nationwide COVID-19 containment efforts through the production of nasopharyngeal swabs. The nasal swabs are printed batch by batch using the depot's HP Jet Fusion 4200 3D printer.
FRCSE is just one of the organizations helping to spearhead these efforts. From proof-of-concept determinations to training and technical issues, several heavy-hitting governmental bodies are involved in the process, offering guidance that provides the type of support required for such a significant undertaking.
In fact, the initial request - nearly two million swabs - was proposed to Army Medical Research and Development Command (MRDC) by the DoD, but it was clear right away that a project of this magnitude deserved a quality partnership. Based on FRCSE's 3D printing capability, it wasn't long before MRDC reached out for support.
"MRDC is the organizing activity and our customer for the proof-of-concept effort," said Robert Hunt, an FRCSE MRO Business Management Specialist. "Rock Island Arsenal (RIA) is like an Army version of our depot, and they were originally tasked with this swab effort. However, based on similarities in capabilities between our organizations, MRDC and other Navy counterparts approached us to further assist."
The printing process begins with a very particular type of resin. The PA-11 (Polyamide 11) is a biocompatible nylon material that is durable, flexible and used in hundreds of various applications, including automotive, electrical housings, textiles and sporting equipment.
PA-11, however, is a new material to the additive manufacturing specialists at FRCSE and is being utilized specifically due to its much higher re-usability rate and finer consistency. The PA-11 material allows for greater details in smaller prints, making it ideal for the swabs.
"The PA-11 is much more micronized, which allows for parts with finer details to be successfully printed," said Evan Grambling, a manufacturing mechanical engineer with FRCSE. "The swabs are printed in a bed of the PA-11 powder, and the printer uses heat to fuse the printing agent to the powder. That reaction bonds the agent and the powder together, and as a result, creates the solid parts. Each printed part is created layer-by-layer."
The solid swabs sit inside the machine within structures called cages. There are 16 cages that house 111 swabs apiece, creating 1776 units per batch.
Though each printing cycle creates almost two thousand swabs, the process does take quite a while. From the time it takes to print, which is approximately six hours, to cooling and blasting, the whole process can take up to 13 hours. The team runs the production in two shifts, and they expect they can kick out up to two batches per day.
Once these swabs come off the machine, they're very hot. Cooling takes roughly the same amount of time as printing, and because of how they're printed with PA-11, there is always some powder that doesn't fuse. The leftover residue then sticks to the swabs. The team utilizes a combination of hand and automated blasting to remove all remaining powder.
"The automated blaster uses nozzles that blast pressurized air and glass bead media onto the 16 cages resting in the drum located inside the machine," said Grambling. "To blast the largest amount of surface area, the drum rotates as the media is blasted onto the cages. After the cages are moved to the automated blaster, the excess powder left behind at the processing station is gathered and re-used."
Once the swabs are properly blasted, and the powder has been collected for recycling, the swabs will be bulk packaged and sent to RIA for individual packaging and labeling. Then, MRDC will select another third party to sterilize the swabs for human use. After the swabs have been packaged, labeled and sterilized, they will return to FRCSE for distribution to DoD customers based on demand.
Collaboration is a fundamental component among dozens of departments at FRCSE. Still, the team makes it abundantly clear that this undertaking simply wouldn't be possible without extending their reach beyond command walls, which allows them to continue pushing the envelope in manufacturing.
"While the capability being established is treated like any other capability, it's a great opportunity to collaborate with other services in support of a larger DoD effort," said Hunt. "I would love for FRCSE to have more opportunities to explore the use of additive manufacturing for a wide range of customers and, while this isn't in our normal wheelhouse of operations, this project is a step in that direction."
As the team consults their partners and gears up for production efforts, they are confident in their abilities to create a seamless product ready for delivery to those DoD customers who need them most.
About Fleet Readiness Center Southeast
Fleet Readiness Center Southeast (FRCSE) is Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia's largest maintenance, repair, overhaul and technical services provider, employing more than 5,000 civilian, military and contract workers. With annual revenue exceeding $1 billion, the organization serves as an integral part of the greater U.S. Navy, Naval Air Systems Command, and Commander, Fleet Readiness Centers by maintaining the combat airpower for America's military forces.
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