ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Maryland — They say necessity is the mother of invention, and the U.S. Army Aberdeen Test Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, is very familiar with innovating.
The ATC workforce learned quickly that creativity is a critical skill in the fight against COVID-19. As a test center responsible for ensuring military equipment works as required for the warfighter, ATC determines risks and finds mitigation tools as a matter of daily operation. The safety of the workforce is the No. 1 priority in the command, and it only made sense to apply the same safety practices to the COVID-19 response, Army Col. John Hall, the commander of ATC, said.
“It’s a significant part of our culture to identify risks and find ways to safely mitigate them,’’ he said. “This makes us uniquely suited to address something like this.’’
Despite years of safely managing test environments and programs, this was still an exceptional situation requiring a unique response.
“I would have liked to have said to our team, ‘The last time this happened, this is how we handled it’,” Hall said. “But this is all new, and we didn’t have anything in our rucksack to reference.’’
To fully understand the risks that COVID-19 posed to the workforce, and the best way to combat those risks, ATC paused test activities. Brian Hill, the director of the Warfighter Directorate, said the pause allowed leadership to carefully analyze the response necessary to keep the workforce safe.
“It gave us a chance to gather emerging information on this new and unprecedented threat, determine a safe path forward and act accordingly to protect our employees,’’ Hill continued.
Working alongside partners from Kirk U.S. Army Medical Health Clinic, also at Aberdeen Proving Ground, ATC leadership responded to the crisis by implementing safety measures on top of an already stringent safety program. The additional measures included increased personal protective equipment use, disinfecting work areas multiple times a day, and creating smaller work groups to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
These new standards all relied on the availability of PPE, which became increasingly scarce as the pandemic continued. This is the point at which necessity bore innovation from the quick minds at ATC.
To mitigate the spread of germs, the Experimental Fabrication Division, or EFD, team quickly designed and manufactured tools to help, said Scott Sattler, the welding branch chief of the EFD.
‘’I believe ATC is accustomed to finding unique and creative ways to overcome problems,’’ Sattler said. “So when the issue of having to implement (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines and the ATC COVID-19 (standard operating procedures) arose, the ATC community was very well poised to make the adjustments necessary to keep the workforce safe, while still completing the mission at hand.’’
The group focused on options to enable individuals to access work sites and use machinery keypads in a way that slowed the possible spread of germs. The EFD team fabricated a handle-less door pull that allows for hands-free operation of the doors around the test center. They also designed and fabricated an aluminum “key,’’ perfect for either opening doors or inputting information on keypads hands-free.
“The idea of the handle-less door pulls went from a concept to having them installed on all the doors of the EFD by lunch time,’’ Sattler said. “The aluminum key went from idea, to final design, and product-in-hand in less than four hours.’’
The creativity and speed from concept to implementation is something the EFD takes pride in, Sattler added, and is simply an example of their everyday ingenuity necessary to support the test mission.
“With providing support to all of the different testing programs being conducted at ATC and along with support to other DOD agencies, the EFD has set itself up to be able to quickly adapt and change course,’’ Sattler said. “So, when the need to change and adapt to the new COVID-19 safety requirements came, we had the mindset in place to adjust our operations.’’
Other divisions within the test center have provided innovative solutions to provide a safe work environment as well. The Applied Sciences Test Division used 3D printers to build face shields for employees. The ATC Safety Office is leading efforts to design large scale, long-term disinfecting protocols, using input from industry partners that include Southwest Airlines, Boeing and the Ford Motor Company. To Hall, the ability of the ATC workforce to respond in quick and creative ways is an indicator of much more.
“If you had asked me a year ago, I would have never thought to mention a pandemic as a tool to measure readiness,’’ Hall said. “But in reality, COVID-19 forced us to ensure our processes and procedures work when we need them to.’’
Responding to COVID-19 has been a challenge, Hall said, but the lessons learned will ultimately be a benefit.
“If anything, I think COVID-19 has made us a stronger organization,’’ Hall continued. “We have definitely learned some things, but we also utilized processes that have always been in place — from safety to manufacturing to innovation — to respond to this unique challenge. While we still have a ways to go and a lot to learn, I couldn’t be more proud of what our team has done to adapt to our new normal.’’