Thomas Jefferson University is on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic in more ways than one. Below is an article first published by our university’s online magazine The Nexus describing Jefferson’s designers and engineers working together to develop advancements to the PPE pieces that are so badly needed right now in hospitals across the country and globe.
University textiles and design experts jump into action to help protect peers on the medical side.
With the focus and intensity befitting a life-or-death race against the clock, Jefferson’s textiles, fashion, design, engineering, and other communities have united in an effort to protect those fighting to save lives amid the COVID-19 epidemic.
“These are interdisciplinary efforts,” explains Dr. Mark Tykocinski, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Jefferson. “Projects like these speak to our university’s push to bridge medicine with our strengths in textile engineering, industrial design, and mechanical engineering and are part of our broader vision.”
JeffMask and JeffVent, names coined by Dr. Tykocinski during the working group sessions that helped formalize the ideas, are focused on two primary goals.
One team is working to create as much personal protective equipment—or PPE—as possible to help protect healthcare workers at TJUH as they treat patients, at a time when supplies are not forecasted to meet the expected demand. This includes surgical masks, N95 covers, face shields and—among other things—protective suits. They are also investigating ways to potentially sterilize existing items to extend their usage life span.
Simultaneously, a separate team is working on prototypes for a “ventilator hack” in the hopes of mitigating the likely scarcity of the life-saving machines, at a time when the number of patients is expected to rise exponentially in the coming weeks and months.
Complicating matters is the fact that team members are forced to work in isolation, or observe proper social-distancing rules when together in person, which is a rarity with the University’s adherence to Gov. Tom Wolf’s stay-at-home order.
“We’re doing what a research-and-development lab would be doing, but remotely, and under siege conditions,” says Michael Leonard, academic dean of the School of Design and Engineering and point person for the JeffVent effort. “The textile design and engineering disciplines have been responsible for creating the materials used in masks, gowns and other forms of PPE since these items were originally created.
Still, they are buoyed by seeing an outpouring of support and desire to contribute from afar, while keeping apprised of progress via regular Zoom meetings and an always-expanding “Jefferson Emergency Projects” folder on Dropbox.
“When the first shortages were projected, textile designers and engineers, garment designers, production and testing experts, and many other fashion and textile members of the School of Design and Engineering’s extended textile family reached out to ask what they might do to help,” Leonard explains. “Support came from all areas of the supply chain.”
There has been substantial progress made over the course of the past three weeks, but the teams are still diligently working toward tangible solutions and products, which would be manufactured by corporate partners or, in the case of some mask prototypes, woven or knit on campus and cut and sewn at the homes of faculty members.
“We’re focused on solving these problems,” says Dr. Ron Kander, associate provost for applied research and executive dean of the Kanbar College of Design, Engineering, and Commerce. “Having any mask is better than no mask. The ventilator hack is a harder nut to crack because, unless it’s an absolute emergency, we don’t want to use homemade ventilators.”
Marcia Weiss, director of the Fashion and Textiles Futures Center and the textile design programs, is leading the JeffMask charge.
Leonard says that all of their work will be open source and made available for others to replicate in their communities.
Through today’s challenges, wonderful creativity is coming to the forefront that may advance the approach to PPE products in the future. —Marcia Weiss
“We’re not competing with anybody,” Leonard says. “We are trying to solve the problems and are already sharing our information with hundreds of people. … Shortages of materials we usually take for granted usually give rise to innovative workarounds, and innovative workarounds usually give rise to new product development. This disaster is no different.”
Weiss noted that “it is clear that there is a massive need for PPE during this pandemic” and lauded “countless” individuals, businesses and industry partners that have offered to help.
She described the effort, which is informed by fiber and textile science and engineering, as an “accelerated, iterative design process, quickly moving from ideas to initial samples to more fully resolved prototypes.” Industry partners involved in the effort include MTL, Knoll Textiles, WL Gore, Harbor Linen, Noble Biomaterials and Langhorne Carpet. These corporate partners are so important because of supply chain concerns forcing the need for items to be made locally.
Among the ongoing projects, and questions the teams are working to answer:
- Prototyping and testing new types of PPE (including N95s, protective gear, and surgical masks, which are in great need)
- Looking at implications of sanitization and sterilization in the labs
- Developing non-wovens for use as mask filtration
- Working with UVC light for sterilization
We hope Jefferson’s new connections between design, engineering, and clinical practice may help us contribute to solutions quickly enough to matter. —Tod Cortlett
“Everyone is looking at how they can use their manufacturing capabilities knowledge to produce products that support the PPE effort. The interest and engagement are incredibly inspiring,” Weiss says. “Through today’s challenges, wonderful creativity is coming to the forefront that may advance the approach to PPE products in the future.”
Among the members of the JeffVent team are Tod Corlett, an industrial designer, professor, and director of the industrial design programs. Late last week, a vent-hack prototype that he’d worked up was being sent to the clinical side for testing.
“This is a global effort, not a local one,” says Corlett, noting the lines of communication are open between peers here, at M.I.T. and across the country. The local team has also kept an eye on an idea from California that, after further investigation, didn’t pass muster. Innovative approaches out of Italy have also caught the team’s attention.
Corlett cautiously withheld much optimism that they’ll be able to come up with an overarching solution in such a tight timeline, but he hopes their efforts will help.
“Smart people all over the world are coming together to plan and prototype solutions, and the crisis is still likely to outpace our efforts to help,” he says. “That said, we may be able to help validate or evolve solutions from elsewhere, scale them up, or adapt them to supplies or issues unique to the Delaware Valley.”
What they aim to do is become “instant experts” across a wide array of fields, while supporting the “real experts” as they work to save lives on the medical frontlines.
“The prototypes we are making are about understanding the problem better,” Corlett says. “We recognize better than most, how far from being ready for patient care they are. We know we’re not doctors.
“Anything the global ventilator development effort proposes will need to be reviewed swiftly but completely by clinicians and regulators before can be safely used on patients. We’re here to help with that,” he continues. “We hope Jefferson’s new connections between design, engineering, and clinical practice may help us contribute to solutions quickly enough to matter.”
Weiss breaks down the ongoing approach as looking to tackle “immediate needs and long-term considerations.”
“It’s incredible to see how many people stepped up to say, ‘Tell me what I can do,’” she concludes. “It’s rare to get the opportunity to work for the good of the public as a whole, but with our experience and training, this is what we have the opportunity to do now.”