Testing medical protective equipment is the perfect job for robots, but not without the help of humans. – News @ Northeast

Several months after the start of the pandemic, there is still a high demand for surgical masks, gowns and other types of personal protective equipment in the United States. This is partly because of stress the COVID-19 crisis has put on the healthcare supply chain to produce and distribute protective equipment.

One of the reasons the process got stuck is that, unlike homemade or commercial masks, the face masks worn by healthcare workers must undergo a series of specific tests to ensure that they will be safe for hospital staff.

But these tests are difficult to perform, requiring specialized facilities that are only available in some labs in the United States.And due to the logistics of sending material to an external facility during a pandemic, this type of testing may take more than a few weeks. , resulting in slow distribution times for manufacturers.

Northeastern students Walter Reuss, left, and Jacob Landgrebe are developing test beds for characterizing surgical masks. Photo by Matthew Modoono / Northeastern University

To overcome this challenge, Taskin Padir, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, mobilized his team at the onset of the pandemic to begin creating robotic technology that can help manufacturing workers and eliminate the need to send masks to outside labs for testing.

Padir is building a system that integrates robotic components and machine learning to speed up testing, while using the intelligence of a human, who can supervise and assist the robot. The system, he says, includes sensors that would help a robotic arm manipulate different objects quickly and efficiently.

Taskin Padir is Associate Professor at the College of Engineering. Photo by Matthew Modoono / Northeastern University

Recently he was selected by the Institute of Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing to receive funding of the US Department of Defense to do just that. The plan is to help manage current and future pandemics.

“I don’t need to ship my products to a national lab and wait for the results for a few months,” says Padir, who also asked for help. Ennio Mingolla, professor of communication sciences and disorders, and Deniz erdogmus, professor of electrical and computer engineering for the project.

In May, Padir began discussions with Massachusetts General Hospital, as the hospital analyzed various contingency plans to prepare for possible shortages of surgical masks. They were considering producing their own masks, Padir says, and needed to ensure they met guidelines set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Northeastern students Walter Reuss and Jacob Landgrebe are developing test beds for the characterization of surgical masks. Photos by Matthew Modoono / Northeastern University

In May, he helped the hospital build a test bed to test its own surgical masks. It was then that he called on Walter Reuss and Jacob Landgrebe, two co-op electrical engineering students in the Padir team. They helped analyze the specific ways in which surgical masks and gowns undergo medical grade validation testing.

Fabrics used in masks must pass various standardized tests to verify their ease of combustion and the effectiveness of the garment in protecting the wearer from splashing fluids, such as blood.

Northeastern students Walter Reuss and Jacob Landgrebe are developing test beds for the characterization of surgical masks. Photo by Matthew Modoono / Northeastern University

In the lab, Reuss and Landgrebe set masks on fire, observing how long it took for the material to burn completely. To test the fluid blocking ability, they shot the materials with synthetic blood.

These early experiences, says Padir, were instrumental in the design of the robotic system he is building.

“I wouldn’t have wanted to talk about this project, because they were the champions from the start when we learned the whole process,” he says. “Now we are trying to integrate robotics and automation into this process, so that they can be integrated into manufacturing volumes. “

Padir’s project is now a partnership with Merrow Manufacturing, a fabric producer in Fall River, Massachusetts. When the company rotated to produce textiles for personal protective equipment and became the largest source of these materials in the United States, Padir decided to contact its CEO, Charlie Merrow. Later, Boston Engineering Company in Waltham, Massachusetts, also joined the team.

Given his experience in integrating workplace robotics across different industries, Padir believes the painstaking and methodical process of testing and validating mask materials is the perfect job for a robot. Yet, he says, handling the materials used in surgical masks and gowns can also be a robot’s nightmare.

Unlike humans, robots do not have the ability to fully sense the things they touch. It can be difficult to grab hold of materials or objects that change shape, such as fabric.

“When I touch a garment, if it starts to slip, I can feel it and I can act,” says Padir. “But robots don’t have that capability yet – we don’t have the technology available for that level of precision. “

The system that Padir builds with Merrow is a type of robotic arm that, instead of directly manipulating tissue, can interact with test gadgets used by human beings. After placing the specimen in a frame specially designed to be manipulated by the robot, the human can walk away and let the system perform the tests automatically.

Padir also has a grand vision to automate the entire testing process from start to finish, from the introduction of raw materials to the extraction of an equipment, such as a mask, with sewing, welding. and the cut. automatically.

A robotic system that can begin to manipulate materials as they go through testing is one link in the chain of that vision.

“It will also help us understand the whole manufacturing process,” said Padir, “and perhaps reimagine the future of manufacturing PPE with automated systems.”

For media inquiries, please contact Shannon Nargi at [email protected] or 617-373-5718.

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