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Fort Detrick lab makes impact on far-flung battlefields

Nov. 3, 2013 - 01:09PM   |  
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FREDERICK, MD. — Jay Bartlett placed an aluminum disc into a machine, shut two sliding doors and punched a few numbers on a computer.

A few minutes later, the disc became a ring that will go to Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. That ring is needed to fit on a glove box there, where researchers need to keep sand fleas contained in a glove box, said Bartlett, an engineering technician at the U.S. Army’s Medical Prototype Development Laboratory at Fort Detrick.

Sand fleas in Middle Eastern countries where thousands of U.S. troops are deployed “are really chewing us up,” Bartlett said.

WRAIR “doesn’t have a machine shop, so they contract us to make the part,” Bartlett said.

The ring is one of many devices coming out of the three-manned shop, which falls under the Detrick-based U.S. Army Medical Materiel Development Activity. Thousands of miles from the battlefield, some of the products fashioned inside the shop help save the lives of soldiers on the front lines. Others, such as the ring Bartlett made, are parts of a larger plan intended to protect the health of warriors.

“It’s real products making a real difference,” said shop supervisor Mark Brown, a mechanical engineer.

The workshop is tucked away between low-slung buildings at Detrick. Aside from Brown and Bartlett, the shop includes Mark Easterday, an engineering technician who, on a recent tour, ran a tool that uses 5,000 pounds of water per square inch to cut materials.

It’s a spic-and-span space, with racks of raw materials and high-tech machines that would be any tinkerer’s dream, with a few additional flairs. The men built a model military-style vehicle out of plywood that sits inside the shop.

“We’re looking at form, fit and function, to include getting patients in, out of vehicles as easy as possible,” Brown said.

If the mock-up isn’t enough, the men also have a couple of real examples parked out back, including a Stryker and two mine-resistant ambush protection vehicles. Brown said the shop has been testing different mats to minimize vibration for patients being moved.

The employees are “trying to solve a problem,” Brown said. The lab may be asked to develop something using pre-made specs provided to it or may develop them on its own.

The men have five patents as co-inventors of devices they have developed over the years for use by the military, Brown said.

One recent example is a piece for a stretcher stand that will help it fold for easier transport. A prototype lay folded on a table. Brown started with a design that he drew on a computer and then made one on a 3-dimensional printer.

The products must be nimble and lightweight to be slid into a backpack, such as a modular stand they made for Air Force Special Operations Forces troops that attaches to a stretcher to hold medical instruments. The products also often must be able to be assembled quickly in the dark, Brown said.

“If a product isn’t a commercial, off-the-shelf item, it’s only then do we start a design, fabrication process,” Brown said. “We’re here because they can’t get it anywhere else.”

The shop made eight modular prototypes, which Brown referred to as a mini special medical emergency evacuation device. The Air Force provided the shop with the design intent and working parameters and made prototypes “that did exactly what they wanted them to do,” Brown said. “So, it was a success.”

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