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Humans of Manufacturing: Heroes

PPE Shortages Push West Texas Volunteers to Get Creative with 3D Printers, Logistics

In times of need, manufacturing is driven by a philosophy John Lennon said best, “There are no problems, only solutions.” Today, manufacturers have pivoted to produce the critical supplies and equipment necessary to battle COVID-19 at a rate never seen before. SME’s Humans of Manufacturing Heroes Edition tells the stories of the teams, companies and partnerships adapting to produce the tools needed to fight this global pandemic. Going behind the scenes to share how these once-in-a-lifetime transformations are happening and the people making it all possible.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a surging need for medical and personal protective equipment. But it’s not just enough to make the needed equipment and supplies, you also have to get it to where it’s needed most. For some of the hardest hit and most talked about regions of the country, such as New York City, there is ample infrastructure – major highways, international airports and more. But for rural America, resources are more limited, medical facilities are fewer and far between, and the infrastructure to supply them is lacking.

With more than 30 years of experience in manufacturing and distribution, Scott Gloyna is an expert when it comes to creating an effective shipment plan. But when he heard about local efforts to deliver medical equipment to remote rural hospitals in West Texas, Gloyna knew this project was not just about efficiency and speed.

Scott Gloyna (right) and Bryan Rose, president and CEO of RoseText Inc., delivered supplies to Ward Memorial Hospital in Monahans, Texas

Gloyna, an Air Force veteran who also volunteers for the health care transport nonprofit group Angel Flight South Central, has teamed up with fellow pilots and amateur aviators to deliver face shields, ventilators, intubation chambers and masks to remote hospitals scattered as far as San Angelo, Amarillo and Wichita Falls.

“I could have shipped all the parts, but you know something? There is nothing like the personal touch of somebody delivering something and handing it to you,” said Gloyna, the founder of Daybreak Coffee Roasters in Lubbock, Texas, which serves customers across the United States. “(It is) showing that our community and our University cares and the people of West Texas care enough about you to stop what we're doing and use our own resources to help you out.”

Designing and manufacturing protective gear is a massive undertaking made possible by the West Texas 3D COVID-19 Relief Consortium, a collaborative group of faculty, physicians, students and local businesses and organizations started by the Texas Tech University. They are using innovative technology to produce equipment for healthcare workers in more than 100 counties across the western half of the state.

The pandemic has killed more than 2,400 people in Texas, as of the end of June, with the number of new cases steadily climbing as the state government reevaluates its plans to reopen the economy. And as hospitals across the nation have been stockpiling protective gear, small rural hospitals with dwindling budgets are often faced with critical supply shortages, said Simon Williams, an associate dean at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock.

“We've had some small communities in West Texas which have had major outbreaks. And their resources are significantly limited,” said Williams. “And as people became scared to go to the hospital, they suddenly had a tremendous drop in patient numbers. They don't have the financial support that other hospitals would have.”

After the pandemic hit in February, the project that started with a single Zoom call quickly attracted hundreds of volunteers as faculty and students across different departments began using idle 3D printers to design and produce medical supplies.

Angel Flight volunteer pilot Joel Buhrmann (left) is loading PPE supplies to be delivered to San Angelo, Texas

Some of the projects are highly organized, involving fundraising, sourcing and partnerships with local businesses.

The College of Architecture at Texas Tech University at El Paso, for example, has been using polylactic acid filament, a nontoxic, biodegradable material that is easy to disinfect and reuse, to churn out hundreds of face shields for hospitals in El Paso and the Navajo Nation reservations. The team has also raised funds to purchase an additional high-quality 3D printer to ramp up “pseudo” N95 mask production.

“This is the most intensely that I’ve worked with 3D printers to make these masks around the clock,” said Ersela Kripa, an assistant professor of architecture at Texas Tech University at El Paso, who has been making deliveries by car. “The need is really being assessed by people who are asking us to support them; we don’t have a predictive model or anything like that.”

Meanwhile, engineers at Texas Tech have designed and tested ventilators with plans to seek approval from the Food and Drug Administration if the need becomes critical. The group has also found a commercial partner who could ramp up production at a relatively low cost, said Williams.

The consortium’s current project is focused on building and setting up remote monitoring stations that would limit healthcare workers' exposure to COVID-19 patients and decrease transmissions.

As initiatives multiplied, Williams and his team have collaborated with the F. Marie Hall Institute for Rural and Community Health in Lubbock and area health education centers to make contacts and assess shortages, while Texas Tech’s industrial engineers leveraged their expertise in logistical organization.

“It was a perfect match between healthcare needs and logistics,” Williams said.

Coordinating with manufacturing teams, pilots from the Angel Flight and similar groups in Midland and El Paso are making deliveries to remote communities that are often served by beaten rural roads and lack airports. Other volunteers have been driving supplies from airstrips to hospitals.

“I've learned over 30 years in business that personal contact is worth everything,” said Gloyna, who’s been receiving hand-written thank you cards from hospitals. “And it sure makes a dim situation a little brighter for them, too.”

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