Collaborative Manufacturing: Sparking Innovation Against COVID-19

Staff Report From Middle Georgia CEO

Thursday, April 16th, 2020

Members of Team Robins are using innovation to care for people and battle the new pandemic, Coronavirus Disease 2019.

The Robins SPARK Innovation Hub at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, is focused on innovative collaboration, partnerships and 3-D printing to design, produce, and deliver products that could save lives.

“The idea was born when a couple of concerned Airmen approached us and asked if we could help design some personal protective equipment because of the depletion of [personal protective equipment] throughout the country,” said Innovation Chief Lt. Col. Jay Vizcarra, assigned to the 461st Air Control Wing. 

“Absolutely,” Vizcarra responded.

“Staff Sgt. Jason Barnhart, with the 461st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, and I did what we have always tried to do and that is to fuse innovative Airmen, their ideas with expertise and subject matter experts from other Department of Defense innovation cells, industry, academia and the community,” Vizcarra explained.

The Robins SPARK Innovation Hub took the lead and ensured the idea began its journey to become a reality with the first product – face shields.

“As part of an innovation ecosystem, we can attack any challenge by combining ideas with others,” he said. “First, we were able to design, produce, and deliver face shields to our base medical professionals who are at war with COVID-19.”

The innovation ecosystem includes multiple entities, including the 78th Medical Group and 461st Maintenance Group. Also, the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex, including the 402nd Commodities Maintenance Group and 473rd Commodities Maintenance Squadron, joined in on the efforts.

Off-base community partners and collaborators include the Coliseum Medical Center, Houston County Healthcare, Houston County Development Authority and Firestarter Fab Lab.

The face shields received rave reviews by medical experts.

“I’m very excited about the face shields,” said Master Sgt. Mandy Hazelton, 78th MDG. “They provide a lot of protection, are comfortable, flexible and can be disinfected after each use, so we can continue on with patient care without significant disruption.”

Next on the innovators “to-do” list are protective masks.

“We are employing the same innovative approach, stout collaboration efforts and tactics to design, produce, and distribute effective masks to join the battle against this virus,” Vizcarra said.

Vizcarra and his team researched Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s mask guidelines to ensure proper mask design.

Those efforts resulted in “better design elements, more breathing capacity and more effective seals,” Vizcarra said.

The worldwide collaboration that Robins SPARK innovators accomplished may be unprecedented for a product.

They reached out to multiple SPARK Innovation Cells throughout the Air Force, including Travis AFB, California; Hickam AFB, Hawaii; Tyndall AFB, Florida; Eglin AFB, Florida; Moody AFB, Georgia; Sheppard AFB, Texas; and the Memphis Air National Guard in Tennessee.

The Air Force’s team of innovators at AFWERX Vegas also got involved.

AFWERX encourages and facilitates connections across industry, academia and the military to create transformative opportunities and foster a culture of innovation. 

Mercer University and the Advanced Technology and Training Center in Warner Robins are two primary partners that are heavy contributors to the creative endeavor.

Robins innovators and Mercer University have a long-standing working relationship that began more than three decades ago. 

The Department of Computer Science in Mercer’s College of Liberal Arts and Mercer Innovation Center helped in the development of the current Robins SPARK Innovation Hub.

Robins innovators are currently working with Mercer specialists to determine if a medical surgery fabric could be used as a filter in the masks.

The ATTC is also a key partner. The state-of-the-art facility helps with additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing. 

The mission these innovators are pursuing is critical in the ongoing clash against COVID-19 and ultimate victory.