By Susan Cuff
UM News Service
MISSOULA – The tight-knit community that is Montana has pulled together during the pandemic. The University of Montana recently exemplified this by answering a call for personal protective equipment from the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, where health care workers and first-responders faced a shortage of face masks.
Staff from Accelerate Montana’s Rural Innovation Initiative at UM, who support entrepreneurship in rural areas and on reservations, became aware of the need and connected reservation representatives with UM’s Innovation Factory (IF). This launched a unique collaborative effort.
The project was coordinated by School of Visual and Media Arts Professors Brad Allen and Elizabeth Dove. The pair are the founding co-directors of IF and helped launch the new organization in UM’s University Center last fall. Allen describes IF as an “innovation ecosystem, where the seeds of entrepreneurship and design are planted and nurtured into reality.”
The collaborative environment of IF was the perfect channel for the mask project, which would need a broad-based network of expertise. The Fort Belknap Reservation health care community needed 200 protective masks and 30 face shields to distribute to workers. Allen and Dove went to work, identifying resources across the state. IF, a facilitator of research design and fabrication, already was working on pandemic response equipment prototypes, and was prepared to jump on the project.
Originally, the idea was to 3D print a mask designed from facial scans produced by a doctor in Billings. After some research, Allen and Dove instead decided to seek out local manufacturing connections and explore the possibility of thermoforming or injection-molding more flexible and better-fitting elastomers (plastic masks) instead of rigid 3D prints.
They contacted Brad Reid, an engineer and the owner of Diversified Plastics Inc., as well as a network of manufacturers across Montana through the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center at Montana State University. MMEC serves as a communication and partnership organization of state-based businesses. Diversified Plastics donated mold materials to an injection molding facility in Bozeman, Spark R&D, so that production could begin quickly at the height of the crisis.
Several thousand reusable, flexible base masks were produced, a direct result of collaboration by all partners.
In the meantime, IF staff members also researched the most effective material available for the mask filters. Still another Montana partner, Lorri Birkenbuel, assistant professor of safety, health and industrial hygiene at Montana Tech in Butte, was asked to test the fit and efficiency of the mask design and other materials that IF identified as having surgical mask-like qualities.
The filter materials were thoroughly tested for micron particle size. IF then produced the face shields and headbands requested by Fort Belknap by 3D-printing a file available online. IF also developed a quality-control system to avoid coronavirus contamination throughout the product manufacturing and shipping.
Although the initial request was to supply masks to the health care workers and law enforcement on the reservation, those two entities have since secured their own supply, said Tonya Plummer, business development officer with Island Mountain Development Group, which requested the protective supplies. The masks likely now will go to the four senior centers on the reservation, workers from a summer food program and a nonprofit summer camp if it operates this year.
“We were very grateful and humbled by the offer,” Plummer said. “We didn’t want to ask for more than we should.”
Some of the masks also may be distributed to Island Mountain employees, but Plummer said they want to meet the community’s needs first – especially since the reservation remains in total lockdown due to the pandemic.
The statewide networking and collaboration developed through this project will provide benefits for both UM and the broader Montana community in the future.
“I’m grateful for the communication track that exists in case of a second wave of coronavirus,” Allen said. “I’m also grateful we had the opportunity and continue to model statewide connectivity and partnerships, using IF as a hub.”
“The University has an attitude of service,” Dove added. “It’s Montana resourcefulness. We see what we have and solve a problem based on that.”
Through this and other projects, IF is gaining credibility and awareness, Allen said.
“The project is a demonstration of the potential of the Innovation Factory,” he said. “That potential includes UM’s ability to develop partnerships, connect resources and offer expertise.
While the face mask project was not a student project, the success of the Innovation Factory will result in internships, job placements and ongoing experiential project-based learning for students. Students also may earn a 12-credit certificate in innovation here at IF.”
For more information on IF, visit https://www.umt.edu/innovation-factory/.