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Billings Flying Service (BFS) is lending its engineering expertise to help the healthcare sector fight the COVID-19 pandemic, with the utility operator creating a prototype ventilator and producing medical-grade face masks.
BFS, established by Al and Gary Blain in Billings, Montana, in 1983, typically focuses on firefighting, aerial construction, equipment transportation and geo-seismic exploration, using a fleet that includes the Boeing CH-47D Chinook, Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk, and Bell 212HP and 206L.
To support that fleet, it has developed extensive engineering capabilities – a quality that was recognized by the company’s local hospital, the Billings Clinic, when it put a call out for manufacturers to produce much-needed medical supplies during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
“Typically we don’t get involved with the local hospitals or the healthcare industry, but we’ve been able to leverage our experience and background in the aerospace industry – developing tooling and solving aircraft-related problems for our own operations,” said BFS engineer Tom Decker, who has worked on the projects at the company along with Peter Yegen and Mikale Lynch.
“Our team members here have backgrounds in environmental engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing engineering,” he added. “We’re able to translate all of that to building both masks and ventilators.”
BFS first worked with the clinic to produce reusable facemasks, and produced 100 by 3D printing parts. However, as it took three hours to produce one mask using this technique, BFS’s engineers realized it wasn’t a suitable method to provide them in the quantity that would likely be required.
“We started to investigate plastic injection molding, and you would be able to go from making one mask every three hours to one mask every 15 seconds,” said Decker.
BFS has partnered with Montana Mold and Machine and is finishing work on a mold for the plastic injection process. Working with Montana Mold and Machine’s Jon Karell, BFS will soon start production on what could be 10,000 or more masks.
The ventilator was created from a design provided by Rice University in Houston, Texas, using a mixture of off-the-shelf and 3D printed parts.
“It’s not necessarily a ventilator in the true definition of the word, but it is a machine that would help automate respiration of the patient in a hospital,” said Decker.
Billings Clinic neurosurgeon Dusty Richardson helped the team, while a local dentist and his son – Spencer and Colton Zaugg – performed the laser cutting of some of the components.
“It’s definitely been an intensive effort,” said Decker. “I think it’s one that that we felt was necessary to make sure that our local area was prepared and we could support it in a time of crisis if we were to get to that point.”
The ventilator is fully functioning, but will only be used as a last resort measure if existing supplies of ventilators are at capacity.
“We have materials and supplies to make more and we’re waiting to hear about the need and getting advice from local hospitals and healthcare practitioners to see if more would be needed,” said Decker. He estimated BFS could build five ventilators a day if they had the supplies on hand.
“It feels gratifying to know that that we can utilize our talents and skillsets in our team to provide help where it’s needed,” said Decker. “We’re grateful to be partnering with the hospital and we’re really appreciative of all the feedback that they’ve given us so that we can we can help the community. It really does make us a tighter knit community, that’s for sure.”