Dr. Aris Makris and his team keep their sights on the end user when developing personal protective equipment for Soldiers.
“A lot of the necessary skills for this job grow from being in contact with the end user community,” says Aris Makris, Ph.D., vice president of research and development (R&D) and CTO for Med-Eng in Ottawa, Ont., Canada.
“To develop the best PPE (personal protective equipment) and bomb suit solutions, you have to be on the road interfacing with clients—in order to truly understand their needs and figure out the human factors of wearing the equipment.”
With a Master’s and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, Makris was introduced to the protective materials sciences when he was finishing his education in the early 1990s. He was asked to work on a project to study which materials best reduced the blast pressure that goes across them in an explosion. “Until that time I didn’t understand the role textiles played in bomb-blast protection,” he says. “The way we protect people is through the use of materials, but very few programs in school and university provide sufficient materials engineering knowledge. Between the person and the threat that may endanger his or her life there is a pile of materials—and materials science. Understanding the engineering physics of the threat, the person’s operational requirements and what the materials can do is how we solve these problems.”
Two-tiered product development
Makris says the process of developing PPE systems falls into two categories; one is the R&D technology side and the other is the incorporation of the new technologies into products. The technology side includes identifying, seeking out, adopting and developing new technologies that can enhance the performance of existing and new PPE products, or may influence a product road map for the company.
“We engage with vendors, trade shows, government laboratories—whatever we need to—in order to be fully briefed on what’s coming up today or tomorrow,” he says. “And we let that input influence our strategies.”
The incorporation of those technologies into the development of products is an ongoing process, which delivers revenue in the near term, Makris says. The design and product development teams incorporate several disciplines, including traditional soft goods skills: tailoring, patterns and sewing. Other skill sets needed to devise a complex PPE system, such as bomb suits, include mechanical design, plastics, electronics, software, firmware, blast physics, ballistics, impact and injury biomechanics, human factors, industrial design, systems engineering, configuration management and a few more. “It can be difficult to find people to manage engineering who have experience in all of the disciplines or even an awareness of them,” he says. “We also need to go out in the field and talk to the people who actually wear the equipment we make (subject matter experts), which exposes us to the critical end-use application element in order to design the right products for the field. By hiring experts within the different disciplines we are able to deliver the right products that people will want to use and differentiate ourselves from the competition.”
Real threats, real solutions
Makris gives two examples of how he and his team have interfaced with end users to understand the threat and end users’ responsibilities to develop a product. One was during the peak of the Iraq War, when the DoD (Department of Defense) asked Med-Eng to come up with a PPE system to protect soldiers from roadside bombs. Makris and his team interviewed end users and their commanders to determine how big the bombs typically were, what the soldiers were wearing, how far away they generally were from the threat and what their duties were. Did they have to load cartridges to their guns? Did they have to bend down? What other responsibilities did they have when they were in their vehicle?
Makris’ staff used that information to custom design a version of a full-body protective suit, helmet and visor, along with a vehicle-mounted personal cooling system, that permitted soldiers to do their jobs within a military vehicle and still be protected if they leaned out of the vehicle to look for insurgents and fire their machine guns if needed. “Fielding the solution for vehicle-mounted personnel helped save lives that would otherwise have been lost or afflicted by life-altering injuries,” he says. “We had several instances in which our protective suits and helmets saved the lives of individuals deployed overseas. That was extremely rewarding and a tremendously powerful motivator for the staff to develop the best protection possible that the wearer will accept for the mission.”
The second example Makris gives was how they developed PPE for people conducting anti-personnel mine clearances. Prior to the Iraq War, Makris took four of the company’s R&D team to visit end users in the active de-mining theaters in Central America and Africa in order to understand the threat and constraints of the people disabling the mines. The team observed the physical demands the workers faced, such as digging up the mines under the hot sun, in different postures, using different techniques and tools. With that in mind, they studied how much equipment the workers could wear and what kinds of materials they need to address the climatic and environmental conditions. “Then we came up with solutions that we tested in the laboratory and ultimately brought them back to the de-mining theater where we blew them up on site,” Makris says. “It was important to see how well they worked in real situations and to instill confidence in the prospective end users.”
Makris points out that it’s also important to engage the client frequently throughout the R&D process to ensure staying on track, as opposed to waiting until the whole product is developed and potentially discovering that it isn’t quite right for the client’s needs. “A lot of big engineering companies do things very sequentially. They work for years to develop a product and hope that nothing has changed during its development,” Makris says. “What we do is have our R&D specifications but then also continuously survey the end user community along the way to ensure alignment and stay current.”
The company carries out end user surveys across North America and around the world to see if what they’re developing still makes sense. They then provide feedback and prototypes to ensure that they continue to be aligned with the needs of the client. “It’s more of a spiral development where you continually look outside throughout vs. a linear development where you only look outside at the end,” Makris says.
Comfort vs. capability
End users who are trying to protect against the effects of explosions, blast pressure, fragments, heat and fireball are asking for lighter weight products. “Unfortunately, Hollywood influences people’s thinking on this,” Makris says. “People think they can wear basically a Spiderman or Superman suit and be impregnable to all threats,” he says. “The fact is when you wear protection you typically have to compromise some comfort and mobility. We try to educate the user on the threat and the benefit they are getting from what they are wearing against the threat—so that they are willing to undergo the inconvenience of wearing protection to reduce the risk of injury.”
While the materials and technology are constantly advancing through a number of active research programs by industry and government, the pace of lightweight protective engineered textiles to defeat the complex threats associated with explosive devices is not keeping pace with the expectations of end users. The demand is driving multi-functional materials—fabric that protects against many threats or serves multiple functions, in order to control the weight contribution of each layer. In the meantime, Makris and his team have developed a modular, scalable blast protective ensemble, which incorporates many different layers of protection. As the user has a differing need for coverage, he or she can add or remove layers as needed.
“The fundamentals of what made us successful 30 years ago still apply,” Makris says. “And they are the intimacy with the client and the commitment to investing in R&D to give people solutions that will work in the field.”