When he was a boy growing up on his family’s 40-acre Hemlock farm, Mitch Gilbert worked often with his hands, honing his industrious nature to build and fix equipment meant to cultivate corn and bale hay. As an undergraduate at Saginaw Valley State University, he sharpened his problem-solving and project-approaching skills considerably while studying mechanical engineering.
Now he is applying those life lessons to join the efforts of his colleagues – including other SVSU alumni – at Duro-Last, Inc. as the company has dedicated substantial resources to helping protect health care workers serving on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As an engineer, you have to ask yourself, what can you do to help the world in the times we’re living in,” Gilbert said. “We’re answering that question. Now we’re doing everything we can do.”
Gilbert serves as Duro-Last’s director of continuous improvement and research and development. It’s a department featuring nine staff members. Six of them are SVSU alumni, having completed degrees in mechanical engineering, engineering technology management, and chemistry. Gilbert has played a key role in his company’s effort to counter a shortage of equipment needed to protect doctors, nurses and first responders in danger of catching the virus from patients.
Duro-Last typically manufactures roofing products. But since the state reported its first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in March, the company has refocused its resources, so far manufacturing more than 40,000 protective gowns and 15,000 masks for some of the hardest-hit health care facilities in Michigan. And the products continue churning out of the manufacturing plant at a rate of 15,000 gowns and over 3,000 masks per week.
During its first few weeks of production, that personal protection equipment was shipped exclusively to Beaumont Health in metro Detroit, which for weeks has suffered as one of the world’s deadliest virus hotspots. When other companies started supplying Beaumont Health earlier this month, Duro-Last began shipping its gowns and masks to other health care facilities in need across the region and state.
Gilbert was involved in the company’s earliest strategy sessions relating to the virus response.
“We started with a broad list of items we could provide, and then narrowed it down to items we could manufacture with material we already were buying for roofing systems,” Gilbert said.
Eventually, the company identified gowns and masks as the two products it could most quickly and efficiently produce.
One of the key ingredients in Duro-Last-produced roofing membranes is PVC film, otherwise known as polyvinyl chloride. When the PVC film is cut especially thin, it can be used to create gowns for hospital use. When combined with polyester fleece, the PVC film also can be utilized in the manufacturing of protective masks.
Gilbert designed engineering drawings for the gowns and masks with the help of consultants at Beaumont Health.
“I probably drew 13 versions of the gown for Beaumont,” Gilbert said. “We had someone drive down there with the prototype, then we would receive feedback from their people. It was a great collaboration.”
Once the final design was approved, Duro-Last worked to reconfigure tools typically used for creating roofing products. That re-tooling effort was supported by another SVSU alumnus, Austin Schroeder, a mechanical engineer with Duro-Last.
Schroeder’s challenge was to readjust machines so that tools built to create products for roofing – which typically deals with angles measuring either 45 degrees or 90 degrees – instead could manufacture products that could fit snuggly on the complex curvatures of the human face and body.
“This whole project started as a problem we needed to solve – and needed to solve quickly,” said Schroeder, a Bay City native. “The problem-solving I learned at SVSU really helped me.”
Both alumni of SVSU’s mechanical engineering program – Gilbert and Schroeder graduated in 2007 and 2018, respectively – credit their experience at the university in part for helping them tackle the challenge. They say SVSU faculty members equipped them with the knowledge and initiative to solve problems requiring an outside-the-box approach. Among the educators they shared despite attending SVSU during different decades was Brooks Byam, professor of mechanical engineering.
“One of the most important things I learned about these types of projects, I learned from Brooks,” Gilbert said. “He would tell us, ‘When you’re working on a project with uncertainties, and you’re feeling stuck, take action. Turn a knob. Do something. It will lead to a solution.’”
Byam said he was proud of Gilbert, Schroeder and their fellow SVSU alumni at Duro-Last.
“It is very gratifying to hear a story like this,” Byam said. “Mitch serves SVSU’s mechanical engineering program in many ways from advisory committees, capstone projects, giving seminars to students and hiring our graduates. It is truly gratifying to see Mitch and mechanical engineering graduates he hired make such a direct, demonstrable impact on society.”