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WNY engineers, manufacturers leave their mark on national COVID-19 response effort

Posted at 10:36 AM, Apr 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-28 18:26:58-04

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Buffalo Manufacturing Works, the Buffalo Billion-funded organization that provides R&D services to Western New York manufacturers, has designed what it confidently describes as a medical-grade equivalent procedural face mask.

While it’s under evaluation by the federal government, the design is now on the National Institutes of Health open-source design exchange so that anyone from across the country can apply it to their own manufacturing effort in response to the global pandemic.

It’s the result of a month of exhaustive work by Buffalo Manufacturing Works’ team of engineers - but it’s not quite the end result they had hoped for.

“Our hope was to have it at a point where [the design] was fully being manufactured first,” said Matt Malloy, Project Engineer at Buffalo Manufacturing Works.

For the past five weeks, the team has been working with Buffalo-based manufacturers*, along with designers and innovators from across the country to create a scalable prototype. It’s a 3D printed, reusable, washable, sealing mask with a replaceable filter component. However, multi-pronged efforts to ramp up production were stifled for a number of reasons, including the painstaking - yet fruitless - effort to secure funding.

“Unfortunately I think the lesson learned is [we as a society] have to have a mechanism to flow dollars faster to do non-traditional response to crises like this,” said Nadine Powell, Operations Manager at Buffalo Manufacturing Works.

Powell and others have been working “high level contacts” to find funding from government, private and philanthropic sources while they await federal feedback. The money, they say, is needed to help their supply chain partners and technical partners minimize the opportunity-cost associated with re-tooling manufacturing operations and continuing R&D or production.

“Existing grant systems are not calibrated to give that immediate one-week turnaround grant for specifically this [type of work],” said Alex Mcleod, a consultant at Deloitte who, alongside her fiancé and national security innovator Jay Long, spearheaded the effort to connect Buffalo Manufacturing Works with R&D partners and manufacturers.

Long, a former Operations Officer with the US Army, calls the time horizon for government grant processes during times of crises “lethal.”

“Until you have money in at the scale needed to produce you can’t buy input supplies, you can’t put your people against making this stuff,” said Long.

Governor Cuomo’s office did not respond to our requests for comment.

Although they have not yet been able to scale the production of their face mask, the tireless efforts of Buffalo Manufacturing Works and their partners has culminated in a highly-technical design that can be used by any maker or manufacturer around the world.

The open-source exchange website where the design lives is administered by the National Institutes of Health, which is collaborating with the Food and Drug Administration and Veterans Affairs’ Veterans Health Administration to “facilitate regulatory and basic science innovation with 3D printing technologies to respond to COVID-19.”

“For all the makers out there doing great things, everything we can do to help them accelerate their efforts and minimize opportunity cost in turn allows them to do more for their communities, and so our hope is that this will help meet that need,” Long said.

An open source platform provides products and product designs for use or modification by any developers who access it. It can inspire creativity and innovation, and solve solutions that one company or organization might not be able to tackle alone.

"It takes it from one team working on it to basically sharing it with the world," McLeod said.

Mcleod says she and Long are "blown away" by the speed at which Buffalo Manufacturing Works was able to work with other makers to innovate a design. She hopes medical manufacturers locally and nationally will take that design for their own COVID-19 response effort.

*Buffalo Manufacturing Works collaborated on the mask prototype with companies including Harmac Medical Products, Curbell Plastics, Apple Rubber, BMP, Sealing Devices, Rolite Manufacturing Inc., Seal and Design, MOOG, and Praxair.