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UC engineering student's co-op job shifts to making face masks

Masks are used for manufacturing company employees and their families

Tyler Sasse headshot

Tyler Sasse

As COVID-19 cases continue to increase in Ohio and across the country, supplies of medical-grade masks and other personal protective gear are being reserved for those on the front line of the pandemic, including healthcare workers in close contact with people who may have the novel coronavirus. Sewn cloth face masks have emerged as an alternative method to offer some protection for non-healthcare workers at essential businesses still operating under stay-at-home orders. 

Tyler Sasse, a University of Cincinnati electrical engineering student, has been tasked with leading the development of and employee efforts to produce sewn masks for the workers and families of his co-op employer, Jergens, Inc. The family-owned manufacturing company in Cleveland produces a variety of tooling equipment, including specialty screwdrivers used in the production of ventilators, which are critical to patient care in severe COVID-19 cases.

Around mid-March, Sasse’s manager at Jergens asked him to oversee an effort to design and produce sewn cotton masks to be provided to employees working on the manufacturing line, in assembly and in packing/shipping. The masks serve as an additional protective measure along with social distancing, shift adjustments to limit the number of people working at the same time, increased sanitization and taking the temperature of every employee as they arrive in the parking lot.

Prototype of face mask

Mask prototype created by Tyler Sasse for the workers at his co-op company. Photo/Provided

Sasse took on the challenge and researched various existing designs to make a prototype sewn cotton face mask from materials widely available. Ultimately, they settled on a modified version of a design from a hospital system in Iowa. The mask Sasse created uses a bent paper clip for adherence on the wearer’s nose and elastic hair ties to attach the mask around the ears. The design includes space to insert a HEPA filter.

“I was involved in the prototyping and making a mask – despite never sewing much in my life – and showing management what they look like and how easy they would be to produce,” Sasse said. 

Some of the company’s employees in customer service were skilled in sewing as a hobby and have been using their personal sewing machines to produce the masks based on Sasse’s prototype. In about a week, 100 masks were made, which will be distributed to the employees working on the shop floor, Sasse said. He expects another 100 masks to be completed within another week. Workers can also bring masks home for their family members. 

Sasse continues to oversee the project to keep the effort rolling smoothly, ensure supplies are on hand, and update the management team on progress. The mask initiative is in addition to his regular responsibilities in manufacturing support in the tooling components division. He troubleshoots problems with machines on the shop floor and implements new robot programs for different parts being produced, among other tasks.

Inspired by his grandfather, a mechanical engineer, Sasse gravitated to engineering as a field of study. Electrical engineering appealed to him and he picked UC in large part because of the required co-op program in the College of Engineering and Applied Science

“Co-op has helped me narrow down what industries I think I could fit in and what I might enjoy doing full-time,” Sasse said.

In addition to his current role at Jergens, Sasse has also completed a co-op at Northrop Grumman. An athlete through high school, Sasse has been involved with various athletic pursuits as a college student, including serving as vice president of the UC handball club, playing intramural soccer and playing Australian-rules football through a Cincinnati organization. 

Sasse expects to graduate in 2021 and is keeping his options open beyond graduation, but is considering eventually earning his MBA. 

“I could see myself in a managerial role one day, especially after this project at Jergens,” he said.