Sometimes, a little friendly competition can go a long way — and in this case of an alumnus reconnecting with his alma mater to join the effort to create personal protective equipment in the fight against COVID-19 — it certainly did.
When Pete Hinkey, a 2016 Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources mechanical engineering graduate, received a text message from his boss about the University of Pittsburgh’s coronavirus research efforts, there was some playful teasing about what West Virginia University may or may not be doing in the humanitarian effort against the virus.
Generations of WVU sports fans can imagine that this accusation was not taken lightly.
“I did some digging and the first thing I came across was an article about the work of the Innovation Hub, so I sent it right back to him as kind of a fun project,” said Hinkey, now a design engineer at Rifton Equipment, a manufacturer of adaptive equipment for children and adults with disabilities.
In his initial Google search, Hinkey found that surgical mask extenders were being produced in the Innovation Hub in the Statler College to relieve the reported pain behind the ears caused by wearing surgical masks for a long period of time. With this new information, Hinkey turned to Rifton Equipment’s tool and die shop to make a plastic injection molding tool — with design credit to WVU engineering, of course — to help create the mask extenders at a quicker rate.
According to Hinkey, injection molding is one of the most common ways that plastic parts in our daily life are produced. Rifton Equipment uses a quick-change injection molding system. This allows for new tools to be turned around quickly and ready for production in just a few days, as well as shortening setup and run-time for production jobs.
“It was just sort of for fun as our company had also been making masks for our local hospitals here in New York and giving them away,” Hinkey said. “So, this was a great addition and we had to do some sort of tip of the cap to WVU for putting that idea out there and letting us piggyback on it.”
Gene Cilento, Innovation Hub director and professor of chemical engineering, was Hinkey’s first contact.
“Dr. Cilento was the dean, of course, when I was a student,” Hinkey said. “When I realized that I would be potentially be working with him, that was an added bonus."
“The willingness of our alum and Rifton to help in this humanitarian effort has greatly extended the ability of the Innovation Hub to provide mask extenders to a much wider user base nationally,” Cilento said.
Working with Cilento’s team at the Innovation Hub, Rifton built the injection mold at its Farmington, Pennsylvania, plant.
“This has been really great for everyone who is still working at Rifton to know that we’re using the spare resources for something that is positive,” Hinkey said. “We’re not letting our machine sit idle and we’re not waiting for the economy to improve. We have to be creative like all of you in solving this problem. It has been pretty inspiring for everyone.”
The new relationship formed will keep the door open for future projects to support the University hospital network.
“Most of all, it’s a testament to the persistence of our team in the injection molding department for pulling this off,” Hinkey continued. “I’m proud of how they took on this challenging project to help out their local healthcare network.”
When asked whether or not Hinkey had the chance to rub some WVU salt in the metaphorical Pitt wound, he chose to take the admirable route of being a good sport.
“It’s all friendly competition,” Hinkey said, referring to the mini Backyard Brawl unfolding at Rifton. “But I’ll be happy to explain if he asks me how WVU got design credit on our injection molded parts!”
Contact: Paige Nesbit
Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources
304.293.4135, Paige Nesbit
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