The Force Behind the Mask: How American Ingenuity Is Saving the U.S. from a PPE Disaster
Updated: May 18, 2022
The U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) awarded AFFOA (Advanced Functional Fabrics of America) and 16 cross-institute collaborators over $11M in funding as part of the American Rescue Act’s Rapid Assistance (for) Coronavirus Economic Response (RACER) program. The funded program will address manufacturing automation, supply chain diversification, and the environmental impact of PPE.
As COVID-19 first spread across the world, U.S. manufacturers and their supply chains were overwhelmed, trying to meet the rapidly increasing demand for personal protective equipment (PPE). Recognizing the dire challenge, and their unique ability to help solve it, the Manufacturing Innovation Institutes within the Manufacturing USA® network jumped into action to help manufacturers pivot and scale production.
Joining Forces with the Manufacturing Emergency Response Team (M-ERT)
Each institute is a public-private partnership with a unique advanced manufacturing specialty. AFFOA, the Department of Defense (DoD) sponsored institute focused on advanced fabrics, wasted no time, and in March of 2020 issued a “Call to Action” to its membership ecosystem. AFFOA polled its ecosystem to see who could support the development, production and testing of critical PPE as well as facilitate critical connections to respond to mask and gown shortages.
This call spurred collaborations across multiple fronts. In April 2020, the Baker-Polito Administration launched the M-ERT initiative, granting over $16 million in funding to help local manufacturers pivot and scale their operations to produce critical PPE items at high volumes.
Together, the M-ERT, AFFOA and its members established a network of testing facilities to provide performance testing of N95 masks, evaluation of foreign-sourced respirator quality, and material performance evaluation for those developing new PPE materials and products. They also assisted more than 20 local manufacturers to start producing or scaling PPE production in the US.
“We realized that we have massive capability in Massachusetts for companies to pivot, which the M-ERT supported through technical advice and guidance, but we also recognized there was an acute need for capital investment, which led to the launch of the grant program,” said Carolyn Kirk, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and an AFFOA Board Member. “AFFOA was an essential partner, as they had the material science expertise and contacts up and down the supply chain. Plus, we knew they could support these companies directly.”
In addition to establishing PPE testing infrastructure, AFFOA served as a fiscal agent for the M-ERT, down selecting and enabling six contracts for local PPE manufacturers valued at over $10 million.
Developing a Blueprint for PPE Production
In October 2020, key funding from the CARES Act enabled AFFOA to start a project aimed at “Creating a Blueprint for Manufacturing During Periods of Surge Demand.” AFFOA applied learnings from earlier work with domestic producers to develop and formalize a manufacturing blueprint for PPE products that will support responses to future respiratory health emergencies.
Participating in the initiative were; AFFOA, Alogus Innovation, ITC InfoTech, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT Lincoln Laboratory, NECFAinc, MSC Software, Pennsylvania Fabric Discovery Center at Drexel University, PTC, University of Georgia, University of Massachusetts Lowell, and RTI International.
“When we joined the M-ERT it was clear that we needed to focus on reacting to the on-going crisis,” said AFFOA’s Senior Technical Program Manager, Dr. Michael Rein. “As we progressed, we realized the importance of using this momentum to prevent another crisis by developing tools, systems, and supply chains. Thanks to this collaborative project, we were able to develop a blueprint for PPE production to prevent product shortages and increase product manufacturing knowledge.”
This funding supported the creation of a tool to assess PPE supply vs. demand, assembling a supply chain database, and domestic end-to-end PPE design, prototyping, production and testing capabilities. This initiative will also result in U.S. government-owned Technical Data Packages for respiratory protection products.
Building a Better Future
The rapid response with the M-ERT, and the ground-breaking work with the CARES act funding, led AFFOA to explore a more proactive approach that would allow the U.S. to be better prepared for future crises.
On February 28, 2022, NIST awarded over $11M in funding to AFFOA and 16 cross-institute collaborators as part of the American Rescue Act’s Rapid Assistance (for) Coronavirus Economic Response (RACER) program.
“NIST is proud to award nearly $54 million in grants to institutes in the Manufacturing USA network to work with dozens of partners on 13 high-impact projects to support research, development and testbeds for pandemic response,” said Mike Molnar, NIST Office of Advanced Manufacturing Director. “These awards, including AFFOA’s, are for innovation and workforce projects that cover a wide breadth and variety of specialties in manufacturing, and the collaborations driving them are essential to rebuilding our manufacturing economy.”
Participating in the RACER initiative are; AFFOA, Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute, Aries, BlueWater Defense, Carnegie Mellon University, eSpin, Henderson Sewing, Inovenso, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, North Carolina State University, Siemens, Sewbo, University of Massachusetts Lowell, University of Georgia, and 99 Degrees.
The grant will allow the team to tackle three challenges observed throughout the pandemic; reducing the environmental impact of PPE, diversification of the supply chain to include production scale-up of new materials and increasing the speed of response for PPE production through the development of fast and deployable production lines.
“Using robots in the creation and quality control of PPE products will free workers to focus on more important tasks, while enabling a rapid response to PPE needs during a pandemic or other health crises,” said Ira Moskowitz, CEO of the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute. “The ARM team is excited to work with our sister institute AFFOA to develop and deploy solutions that push the boundaries of textile production automation, with far reaching benefits beyond crisis readiness.”
As the cross-institute team received the news that they were awarded their funds, they also hit the two-year mark since diving into pandemic relief efforts. Two years later, COVID-19 is better understood, there are no major shortages of PPE, and hospitals are not facing the same capacity constraints.
“Looking back at the early days of the pandemic, it is clear that the Manufacturing Institutes and their ecosystems were crucial in helping reinvigorate PPE manufacturing to meet our country’s needs,” Said AFFOA CEO Alexander Stolyarov. “Looking ahead, as we launch the RACER program, I know that the same spirit and ingenuity that got us through the tough moments will help us rise to the occasion again as we work with our partners to build resilient domestic manufacturing capabilities for the future.”
AFFOA is a non-profit, public-private partnership founded in 2016 as one of the DoD-funded Manufacturing Innovation Institutes in the Manufacturing USA® network. Headquartered in Cambridge, MA, AFFOA’s mission is to rekindle the textiles industry by leading a nationwide enterprise for advanced fiber and fabric manufacturing innovation, enabling revolutionary new system capabilities for commercial and defense applications. To catalyze the development of advanced functional fibers, AFFOA has assembled a Fabric Innovation Network (FIN) with 140+ members including startups, universities, manufacturers, commercial industry and defense partners. For more information visit http://www.affoa.org, email email@example.com, LinkedIn or tweet @AFFOA_RFT.