Ad Astra Coalition designing, producing much-needed PPE during pandemic


Kylie Cameron

Personal protective equipment sits in the loading dock of the Shocker Store in the Rhatigan Student Center. These boxes were donated to area hospitals and first responders.

Dubbed the Ad Astra Coalition, local businesses and Wichita State have teamed up to develop and provide much-needed personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare professionals.

Aviation companies Textron Aviation, Spirit AeroSystems, and Airbus America have come together with WSU and WSU Tech to prototype and begin mass productions on such products as face shields, stethoscopes, and other equipment needed to combat COVID-19.

Rob Gerlach, WSU director of intellectual property and technology transfer, said 1,000 face shields were delivered to Sedgwick County the day the Ad Astra Coalition was announced.

The coalition has since switched from 3D printing to injection molding for face shield production, which speeds up the rate of manufacturing. As of April 15, Gerlach said the hope is to deliver upwards of 10,000 face shields.

The coalition is also looking to the future, beyond the immediate need in the community. Gerlach said that after assisting with the development and production of PPE, they plan to go into a second phase of helping in post-pandemic relief efforts.

Gerlach said he isn’t sure what that will look like just yet.

“So how can this core group do what it can to help them [with] the economic recovery aspects? I don’t know what that looks like at all,” he said.

But Gerlach said the companies are committed to helping restore a sense of “normalcy” in the community.

“It may be a very phased return to life,” he said. ‘If it’s a phased approach, then that may actually open up some opportunities for us to help with that phased approach. I just don’t know what it looks like yet.”

The Ad Astra Coalition came about after WSU offered to act as a drop-off site for PPE.

“And then the community really kicked in,” Gerlach said. “Textron Aviation donated 7,500 masks that were then redistributed.”

That started a conversation with Textron about how the university and company could work together to provide for the Wichita community. The initial collaborative project was a face shield for the medical community.

At the same time as the WSU/Textron collaboration, Spirit AeroSystems was also getting involved with Wichita’s medical community.

“So that’s kind of when at Wichita State, we said, ‘Hey, let’s everyone come together and have a brief meeting,’” Gerlach said.

Expertise within the Wichita medical community and WSU’s School of Health Professions aided engineers in designing and developing PPE.

“It’s been just amazing how they can provide the feedback and the engineers can go tweak things, give it back to them, iterate real quickly, and within a couple of iterations, we’ve got a final design that really works for first responders,” Gerlach said.

He said he’s been encouraged to see the community rally together in a time of great need.

“You’re seeing the community come together in really unique ways to try to help through this crisis. It’s truly a community effort from all different parts,” Gerlach said.