The Power of Three: The USAMMDA Medical Prototype Development Laboratory
When the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Development Activity is asked to find a solution to a problem that affects the nation's warfighters, it calls upon the talent and resources of its team at the Medical Development Prototype Laboratory located on the grounds of Fort Detrick, Md. As a subcommand of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, USAMMDA shares in the USAMRMC's mission to create, develop, deliver and sustain medical capabilities for the warfighter — to protect and preserve the lives of our men and women in uniform.
From concept to creation, using some of the most sophisticated and technologically advanced equipment available today — from a laser engraver to 3-D printer, from a 50,000 psi water jet cutting system to woodworking and sheet metal machines — this group of experienced engineers and engineering technicians at the MPDL not only know how to get the job done, they actually get the job done — on time, every time.
And surprisingly, this team consists of only three dedicated men.
"USAMMDA's MPDL has a uniquely direct and important impact on the medical materiel field," said Mark Brown, a mechanical engineer who serves as shop supervisor. "Typically, our services are called upon when something is needed very quickly, such as an out-of-theater request. That is when our capability, experience, flexibility and support throughout the MRMC are critical."
Brown said he and his team "have the best jobs on post," and he may be right. Together with Jay Bartlett and Mark Easterday, the lab's two engineering technicians, this highly knowledgeable group brings nearly 115 years of combined research and development experience to the MPDL.
Any way you slice it, this number is pretty impressive for a team of only three.
And speaking of slicing, this is exactly what goes on many days in the shop. But when one thinks of slicing, he usually thinks in terms of inches, and feet. In their world, slicing may mean separating a piece of material into sections within a 0.003-inch tolerance, which is about the thickness of a strand of human hair.
Yes, a strand of hair.
It's all about ultra-precise measurements, because if a cut is off even the width of that which cannot be seen with the naked eye, two pieces made to fit together will not — and this doesn't help anyone solve any problems.
"Basically, our team works together to design, develop drawing packages, and quickly prototype far-forward medical equipment in support of the USAMRMC's mission," said Brown. "We're able to prototype and do small production runs of medical devices in different scales and out of various materials. We also use our capabilities to harden commercial off-the-shelf items for use in the field."
Core capabilities of the MPDL include 3-D computer-aided design and manufacturing, prototype development and fabrication, precision sheet metal forming, welding, chemical coating, cleaning and finishing, and technical data package development. And the lab uses all of these resources to achieve its full potential when called upon — all with the safety, health, and welfare of the warfighter in mind.
While Brown and his team typically are tasked by the Army for their projects, recently they have been developing a very critical bracket for the U.S. Air Force.
"Currently, we are working on an Air Force project that involves mounting a device to a Stokes litter basket that will prevent it from rotating uncontrollably during helicopter hoisting and rescue," said Brown. "Under certain conditions, because of rotor backwash and the surrounding landscape, the litter basket can begin to spin wildly, endangering the lives of both the casualty and the assisting medic. This device we've created uses the rotor back wash and a gyroscope to maintain a steady-state condition."
This bracket is just one of many items Brown and his men have created over the past few years. Other projects they have completed include full-scale mock-ups of various military medical vehicles, field operating tables and sinks, an X-ray machine, shelters, entomology devices (for sand fly and mosquito-repellent testing), and a non-contact respiratory monitor. Many of these items have been patented or have U.S. patents pending.
While these products may appear "complicated" to some, the intent and result is actually the opposite. With the warfighter in mind, the key principals that drive product design for the MPDL team are that the product be functional, simple to operate, compact, lightweight, easy to assemble (no tools required), and interchangeable — all packaged in a low-volume cube for shipping and distribution.
This all sounds easy enough, doesn't it? Well, it is — most of the time — for Brown, Bartlett and Easterday. But even when it isn't, they still come through with the product — on time, every time.
To sum it up in a nutshell, it's all about impact — the impact this team has on saving lives and securing the welfare of those men and women defending our country, because these warfighters are the focus and the recipients of the MPDL's work each and every day.
"We're very fortunate to have the support of upper management throughout USAMMDA's divisions, because this enables us to prioritize our internal workload and get funding in place to acquire the materials, tooling and commercial parts required to complete the task at hand," said Brown. "We have worked very hard to streamline the development process by aggressively integrating technology, cross-training personnel, and leveraging knowledge and capabilities throughout the entire USAMRMC."
And perhaps best of all, this team of three dedicated engineering professionals are able to work together, everyday, using their minds, hands, and specialized equipment to create a finished, working, and effective product that comes from one simple phrase — "Our Soldiers need this."
"Without a doubt, the best thing about my job is that it gives me the opportunity to work with my team to design and fabricate materiel solutions in support of those who have dedicated their lives to defending our freedoms," said Brown. "This is my greatest professional reward and motivation."