Combating Coronavirus: Navy Provides Protective Gear to First Responders

22 April 2020

From Warren Duffie Jr.

To equip those on the front lines of coronavirus response, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Keyport-in partnership with the Navy's Tech Bridge program-manufactured over 500 face shields and personal protection equipment for first responders in Washington.

To equip those on the front lines of coronavirus response, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Keyport—in partnership with the U.S. Navy’s Tech Bridge program—manufactured over 500 face shields and personal protection equipment for first responders at two hospitals and naval commands in the state of Washington.

The response reflects a larger effort by the Department of the Navy to 3D print medical face shields at multiple warfare centers and naval laboratories, in order to meet the increased demand for protective equipment during the pandemic.

This push stems from a request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help combat coronavirus—and was authorized in a recent memo by James F. Geurts, assistant secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition.

“The naval workforce is playing an important role in the response to COVID-19,” said Richard Carlin, director of technology-acceleration programs at the Office of Naval Research (ONR). “It’s critical that we help bolster industry’s capabilities, in order for first responders to do their jobs safely and effectively.”

A partnership between ONR, the Naval Expeditions Agility Office, the Navy’s Technology Transfer Program Office, and all naval systems commands, Tech Bridges are regional innovation hubs where warfare centers, government, academia and industry can team up and work together on technology research, evaluation and commercialization—as well as economic and workforce development.

When coronavirus reached pandemic stage recently, the state of Washington emerged as an early hotspot. Johannes Schonberg, director of the Northwest Tech Bridge at NUWC Keyport, was contacted by a local industry partner about ways to help the Washington State Health Care Response Team.

Schonberg learned about a shortage of reliable face shields and personal protection equipment at Naval Hospital Bremerton and civilian facility CHI Franciscan. The equipment being used was old and in poor condition. Replacement parts were hard to find because they were obsolete or the companies that originally made them went out of business.

Schonberg teamed with engineers in the rapid-prototyping shop at NUWC Keyport’s Maintenance, Engineering and Industrial Operations Department—where they refurbished the protective equipment using traditional manufacturing methods as well as 3D printing.

The work was sponsored by the Naval Innovative Science and Engineering program, which allows Department of Defense laboratories to develop cutting-edge scientific and technological solutions to respond to pressing problems.

“We’re not competing with industry, but offering surge support and additional resources to meet emergency demand,” said Aaron Darnton, NUWC Keyport chief technology officer. “If industry is overwhelmed, we can leverage our capabilities as a warfare center to be a backfill of sorts.”

The face shields and personal protection equipment received positive feedback from the hospitals. The project was so successful that ONR is sponsoring a similar collaboration among the Northwest Tech Bridge, NUWC Keyport and the University of Fairbanks in Alaska (a Tech Bridge academic partner).

NUWC Keyport and the Northwest Tech Bridge are sharing best practices and successful manufacturing models with the university—providing it with a playbook to work with local industry to produce protective equipment for first responders at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital.

The initiatives in Washington and Alaska are enabled by various partnership agreements brokered by the Navy’s Technology Transfer Program Office, located at ONR.

“The coronavirus situation is changing daily,” said Schonberg. “An effort like this allows our naval workforce to be agile by making full use of our relationships with industry and academia.”

Warren Duffie Jr. is a contractor for ONR Corporate Strategic Communications.


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