A challenging but ultimately successful scramble to make a half-million plastic face shields early in the pandemic now has one manufacturer trying to give a high-tech, Industry 4.0 makeover to that low-tech personal protective equipment.
"Internally, we're calling it intelligent PPE," said Michael Regelski, senior vice president and chief technology officer for the electrical sector at power management firm Eaton Corp.
The Northeast Ohio company, which has 93,000 employees worldwide, wants to digitize PPE.
Back in the spring, Eaton led a project with other manufacturers that quickly shifted production lines at plastic molding and mold making companies around the state and churned out hundreds of thousands of face shields for the Ohio government.
The need was clear: Eaton has made more than 500,000 face shields, about 50 percent above initial projections of 360,000.
And that demand prompted some thinking. Could the firm take the Industry 4.0, interlinked technology in its electronics equipment and upgrade the decidedly simpler face shield?
"We tried to ask, what can we do to digitally enable it to increase the safety and welfare of both the individual as well as the company and the other coworkers," Regelski said. "What we did is we looked at how to embed different sensing technology and communication technologies into the face shield and into any type of PPE."
In an Oct. 14 interview, he said Eaton is close to launching the results of the effort. It sees applications for PPE that can do things like monitor vitals and pay attention to social distancing in a wide range of industries, from medical facilities to factories and other workplaces.
"When you start looking at large-scale facilities, meat-packing facilities and everything, there's so much manual process and check and expense that's going in to keeping workers safe, that the industry is just ripe for something that could be automated," he said.
The company is developing sensors that can easily attach to face shields or other protective gear or function on their own.
Besides checking vitals, they can also monitor if a wearer is too close to another coworker for too long to regulate social distancing and create a digital trail of contacts within the factory. If someone tests positive, companies can use that to trace back who they may have interacted with.
"If somebody is detected as having COVID, how do you quickly do a contact trace inside the facility and say who else might this person have run into and how do I notify them so that I don't have an outbreak inside of my site?" he said. "We're finding this to be a very well-received extension of the physical PPE that people have to wear anyway."
Regelski said Eaton was exploring digitally enhanced PPE before the pandemic in areas more related to its core businesses, like protecting electrical workers, but COVID-19 dramatically accelerated that work.
"This really gave it a turbocharge," he said. "It allowed us to look at this as a way not only to help get everyone back to work safely and keep them at work safely, but it also accelerates our strategic plans."
Eaton is far from the only company looking at blending PPE and technology. A June report from the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work noted a lot of interest in "smart PPE" but cautioned it's a new area lacking in the standards and testing protocols available for regular PPE.
An August report from consulting firm Technavio estimated an 11 percent annual growth rate for smart PPE from 2020 to 2024.
Part of larger effort
Eaton's work with face shields was part of a larger effort that started April 1 by Gov. Mike DeWine, the Ohio Manufacturing Alliance to Fight COVID-19, to help build up the state government's stockpiles of PPE.
In all, more than 30 manufacturers in several groups working independently of one another delivered more than 1 million face shields, said Ethan Karp, CEO of the Cleveland-based Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network and one of the coordinators.
"The state ended up distributing them wide and far," Karp said. "I know they're going to everyone from the poll workers who are going to be out there in (less than) two weeks to hospitals that needed them to nursing homes."
"We regularly see these on news reports," he said. "I couldn't tell you exactly where and how they were distributed, but we delivered all within the time period they wanted, within those five weeks."
Not that it was easy. Companies worked nights and weekends to compress mold building and product development that can take weeks down into a harried 10 days. The manufacturing that followed had its own challenges.
"I would say it was very tough, things went wrong. Some manufacturers didn't perform, and then some overperformed and picked up the slack," Karp said.
Having that redundancy in the systems turned out to be crucial, he said.
"We had so much going on that couldn't go off without a hitch," he said. "Redundancy is required when going superfast. That was a learning (moment). It was super-well learned."
For example, the group ran into trouble early on, sourcing a large order of polycarbonate needed for the shields.
"When one of our plastic suppliers said, 'We've got all the plastics you need,' and then they said, 'Nope, we have this inferior plastic, actually,' we then had to scramble to get the hardest-to-find ingredients very quickly," Karp said. "We had three or four different companies search everywhere, lean on their friends and get us the material that was needed for this lifesaving process.
"The people you trust, in times of crisis, are critical," he said. "We were creating this all new, so we didn't know who to trust. Now we know who to trust."
Karp sees larger lessons for the companies that worked on the program.
Manufacturers face a lot of challenges, he said, from building a strong workforce to modernizing their factories to handle the interconnected, Industry 4.0 technology linking their machines and that Eaton's using in its upgraded PPE. The way that supply chains responded in the face shield program shows resilience, he said.
"This shows in many ways the strength of our industry and its innovation and ingenuity and its spirit," he said. "This is perhaps very fuzzy, but I think it's so important when we look at the other things that manufacturers are going to need to do in the future around adopting technologies and advancing their business model — all of the things that are coming along with Industry 4.0."