|SLCC President Deneece G. Huftalin (far left) and cabinet members with dozens of masks produced by the injection molding machine behind them.|
As the COVID-19 pandemic began sweeping across the U.S. this past spring, employees with different skill sets at Salt Lake Community College started brainstorming how they could use their talents and the school’s resources to make a key component of keeping people safe – masks.
The result – thousands of masks are being delivered to places across Utah where they are needed most, thanks to a small army of employees and volunteers at SLCC’s Westpointe Workforce Training and Education Center and the Fashion Institute at its Library Square Campus.
“As we look forward to opening the campus this summer, we will all need to be mindful of our role in elevating one of our stated values – community,” says SLCC President Deneece G. Huftalin. “As community members, we will be asking employees to wear a mask in public areas where social distancing is not easily maintained to help keep everyone safe from the spread of COVID-19. The efforts by our faculty and staff through our Fashion Institute and Injection Molding lab will help us do that as they create masks not just for SLCC employees but for our larger community members as well!”
Peter Reed likes to say that faculty in his department have moved from being advanced manufacturing educators to educators who manufacture. He’s talking about how they’re making masks using injection molding machines at Westpointe.
Three of those machines, worth $150,000 to $200,000 each, were donated by Merit Medical, BD Medical and Japanese Steel Works. The types of products they can churn out vary as widely as the kinds of molds that fit inside the automated machines at Westpointe’s injection molding lab.
The entire lab might be idle in lieu of students during the pandemic that shut down campuses around the country and forced classes to be delivered remotely. But Peter and others devised a way to use the room’s high-tech resources for making durable, reusable masks – thousands of them.
Originally, the idea was to make masks using the school’s 3D printers. Peter, the advanced manufacturing program manager at Westpointe and manager of SLCC’s lineworker apprenticeship program, wanted to get masks to lineworkers throughout Utah, and faster than the printers could produce them. Injection molding machines were the answer. “They are a group that had to carry on as normal, and we wanted to do what we could to support that industry,” Peter says. “Information changed quickly, and situations changed fast, and we have continued to adapt to leverage our abilities, facilities and industry partners to help our community.”
Molds were purchased under an agreement that allows SLCC to manufacture masks for donation for up to six months. With a budget of $60,000, the college could afford to purchase enough materials to keep going for about two months – enough to make about 12,000 to 13,000 masks.
With a push of a button on an injection molding machine, it takes about 35 seconds to make a mask comprised of a soft thermoplastic elastomer, the same substance used to make the straps. A grill that fits inside the mask and holds in place a filter is made of a more generic polypropylene. Peter and his group can make about 500 masks per day.
The masks, which would retail for about $15, are being donated to Intermountain Power Superintendents Association for lineworkers throughout Utah and surrounding states, the Fraternal Order of Police for officers and first responders and smaller hospitals and clinics, SLCC Facilities and other internal groups at the college and Stadler Rail, a local industry partner with whom the college has developed the Talent Ready Apprenticeship Connection for area high school students.
The first masks were made at Westpointe in early May, and Peter says more requests are coming in. The mask kits are bundled in groups of 10 and delivered with instructions on how to assemble them. And it’s all free to the recipients. “We will never charge for these masks,” Peter assures. “Not only is it part of our mission to assist our community in this time of need, we agreed to never offer them for sale in order to purchase our molds at such a steep discount.”
Once the current mask production stops, the lessons will live on at Westpointe. “This initiative will have a significant, positive impact on the program curriculum,” says Jennifer Saunders, assistant vice president for Workforce Training and Continuing Education. “The licensing agreement for the masks provides SLCC to continue using the molds for instructional purposes. Upon returning to campus, students will be making masks as one of their class projects. This will be a meaningful addition to the advanced manufacturing and injection molding training program.”
When Mojdeh Sakaki realized several of her adjunct faculty at SLCC’s Fashion Institute, where she is the program director, were without classes to teach because of the pandemic’s impact on in-person training labs, she wanted to assemble a mask-making team to keep them working. She already had on hand donated organic cotton and hundreds of yards of yellow elastic – she just needed the people power.
Mojdeh received budget approval from President Huftalin and the college’s COVID-19 task force, and under the banner “Project Gratitude,” she organized a group of six paid adjunct faculty members, an SLCC student and about a dozen volunteers through the college as well as her own friends and neighbors to make surgical-style masks.
Gustavo Gramajo, a father of two teen girls who since 2017 has taught beginning and intermediate sewing classes at the Institute, was one of those adjunct instructors who was suddenly without work. Project Gratitude has helped him while helping others. In one week, he sewed 200 masks, had sewn about 800 by May 16 and was on track to sew more. “This is a great opportunity to help, because we need these,” Gustavo says. “I know some people who don’t have access to a simple mask.”
Gustavo and other group members pick up materials from the Institute’s Library Square Campus, bring them home to their sewing machines and work on assembling the masks, following CDC guidelines for cloth face coverings. They’re brought back to Mojdeh for inspection, and each is stamped with ink that spells SLCC in block letters before they’re packaged and delivered. As of mid-May, they had made about 4,000 masks and were prepared to keep going. Recipients include the Granite and Jordan school districts, the Indian Walk-In Center of Salt Lake, University of Utah Healthcare Services, Primary Children’s Hospital and others. Sakaki expects production to end when the budget runs out to pay people, despite having supplies to keep making masks.
“Everyone is so thankful,” Mojdeh says. “I tell everyone that the community college is doing this. They ask if we’re selling them or if they’re donated. When I tell them they’re donated, everyone just gets crazy happy because of what we’re doing. People cannot be thankful enough. It’s a wonderful thing what we’re doing, and I’m glad we’ve had the opportunity to do it. If we see something we can do, of course we’re going to do it.”