Incodema: From Metal Fabrication to Pandemic Mitigation

As you’ll learn from this podcast, Incodema pivoted during the COVID-19 pandemic to supply a local hospital, Cayuga Medical Center, with reusable face shields that can be fully sterilized. In the process, Incodema learned lessons about itself and became an even more innovative company.


Steve Milito: Hey, welcome to New York State Manufacturing Now, the podcast powered by FuzeHub. As our name suggests, all about New York state manufacturing and today we are talking with Incodema, a company that has been instrumental in the response to COVID- 19. As everyone knows, manufacturers are trying to pivot, and so we at FuzeHub are trying to capture some of their stories and so this podcast is part of that effort and we’re joined today by Illa Burbank. Illa, welcome to New York State Manufacturing Now.

Illa Burbank: Thank you very much. Pleasure to be here.

Steve Milito: So, tell us a little bit about Incodema. Let’s talk about before COVID-19 happened, it’s hard to believe there was life before the pandemic, but there was, what was the company’s story? How did it start? What are you good at? What do you specialize in?

Illa Burbank: So, we are a precision cutting and forming sheet metal manufacturer and our specialty is prototypes, although we do have capabilities for smaller parts to go to low to mid volume production. And we are a quick turn facility. So, we have a 6 to 8 day turn for most of our parts, including plating. In fact, today we just got a request in from someone who said, ” Can we please get them a part by the end of day today?” So, we have that capability to quickly turn on a dime and make new parts for people.

Steve Milito: That’s great. And how long have you been around and where are you located?

Illa Burbank: So, the company was formed back in 2001 by Sean Whitaker. He was a mechanical engineer at a company that made thermal printers and when he was designing the new printers, he found that it was really easy to source the plastic components, but very difficult to find low volume metal components. So, he found that niche and decide to start the company with the intent of making mostly prototype quantity, but quick, quick turn on the turnaround time for the lead time. So, we’re based in Ithaca, New York and we’re 45 employees. I had to think about that. 45 employees in the Ithaca facility. Since that time back in 2011, we purchased another company called New Cut, and they are located in Newark, New York, near the Waterloo Outlet malls. Most people don’t know where Newark is. So, they have about 28 employees and it’s a photochemical etching company. And then one last little part of Incodema had started a metal 3D printing operation out of its facility. And as it started to grow and grow, that business was spun off and it has become its own business entity called Incodema 3D and that’s located about 15, 20 minutes from this facility in Freeville.

Steve Milito: All right, great. So there’s some ingredients there that would point towards Incodema’s ability to pivot, shift, get creative, do all those things that are essential. And so what we’re going to talk about, and I don’t want to spoil the story, is how Incodema made medical face shields. And I guess even before we talk about that, had you done medical face shields before or any medical products like it?

Illa Burbank: No, not specifically face shields. We certainly do make medical components. And again, what we make are usually just components, small parts of a larger assembly. Oftentimes we don’t even know where they end up. But we do have some medical customers, but nothing close to a face shield before.

Steve Milito: Okay, great. And so the story as I understand it, and it’s based on a very well- written release that you did for the media, is that Incodema did a face shield for Cayuga Medical Center. How did they know to contact you in the first place? Was that relationship there or did it just happen during the COVID- 19 crisis?

Illa Burbank: Well, first of all, we’re on the way up to the hospital, so anyone going up to the hospital has to drive by our facility. So, they certainly know of our existence. But Incodema has also supported them in some of their past fundraising efforts and then the founder’s wife is currently the chair of the foundation board. So, there’s already a strong relationship, that they know about in Incodema certainly.

Steve Milito: Now the medical center had a shortage of face masks. I understand that part of the shortage was almost inherent to the products. What were some of the limitations of the face shields that they were using?

Illa Burbank: So, when the Cayuga Medical Center reached out to us, they were having trouble sourcing face shields because there’s such a high demand for them at this point in time. So, they came to us and said, ” Can you help us find some solution?” And we like to pride ourselves on being the solution provider. So, we looked online to see if there were any other solutions, designs out there that we could piggyback off of, and found that there were some that were just a plastic shield. You attach a strip of foam so that you can keep that shield off of your face, and then it would be attached in the back with elastic. But there was no elastic to be found. There’s so many other people out there who are trying to do the same design and help out, which is great, but most of the elastic bands were not available until May time period. So, as we started back and forth talking, this was on a Wednesday, by the way, with Cuba Medical Center, tried to find other alternatives. We did make a design change so that the plastic would come at the top or partway around the back of the head, then we could fascinate with Velcro. So, we took an original design, adapted it to materials that could be found currently. But with discussion with the Cayuga Medical Center, it became obvious this is a one- time use. Because you’re using that foam strip, it cannot be sanitized. So, it’s one and done and they end up having to go back and source new face shields constantly. So, that brought up the discussion in our shop. How can we help alleviate this so that they don’t have to keep running out and buying new face shields? Well, the answer is can we make a sanitization face shield? And I think most people know, stainless steel is well known in the medical community as something that can be sterilized. So, that got the process started.

Steve Milito: Great. Now, what is the plastic that was used? I’m sure it was somewhat specialized.

Illa Burbank: So, most of the designs out there are using easy to get materials such as the transparencies and those other thinner plastics. We happen to have in our shop some Mylar. It’s a clear plastic, but it’s a little bit sturdier than what most transparency material can be. So, we gave that a try and we have a pretty unique machine called a micro water jet machine, those who are the technical or engineers will know that it’s a water jet technology. But this one is made for thin materials, so it’s very tight tolerances, made for thin metals and also for non- metals. It was perfect for this use. So we went ahead and used our micro water jet to cut out the plastic shield portion, the face shield portion.

Steve Milito: That’s great. So, you had the Mylar in- house, you had the equipment to cut it, and you had the knowledge of steel as it’s used in medical equipment. That’s great. Were there any other equipment sets or processes that you used, again, drawing on your internal knowledge?

Illa Burbank: Yeah. So, that was the plastic face shield that lands in front of your face that we used on the micro water jet. For the metal portion, the part that goes around your head and holds that plastic shield in front of you, we cut that on one of our laser machines. And then obviously if you know anything about the laser machines, then you have to deburr them, they do have a little bit of an edge to them. So, after laser cutting them, you have to clean them up, make the edges a little bit softer, and then form them. So, we have some press breaks here so we did form some of the tabs on our press breaks and then manually formed the rounded portion. And as we got talking about this more and more, we thought, we don’t want to be the only ones who have this knowledge, if there’s a great need for this, we want to be able to share this across the country or across the world. So, we had our engineers in- house come up with a CAD file and we have posted the CAD file, the instructions and the prints, onto our website so that anyone can make these parts as long as they can get their hands on someone who can laser cut the stainless steel. So, the rest of the processes can be done completely manually with standard floor equipment. You don’t need a press break, you can use the other ones with pliers, you can make some of those bends with the pliers, just so that we can make it more accessible.

Steve Milito: Okay, great. And so you’ve made that file available on your website. Do you have any numbers on how many times it’s been downloaded or do you have a sense of how many people have looked at it?

Illa Burbank: I actually have not looked at those numbers yet. I need to get in touch with our website guru and have him take a look.

Steve Milito: All right, good. So, it’s a great service that you’re providing. But many people want to be helpful, but you got to have the equipment to do the work, right? This is not just something that you can do at home in your shop. You really have to have the right tools.

Illa Burbank: Correct.

Steve Milito: Okay, good. Now, whenever it comes to something that’s medical, the issue of testing comes up. And so how did you have this face shield tested and presumably so quickly? And I guess maybe you could speak to the entire timeline of the project as well.

Illa Burbank: Sure. As I alluded to a little bit, they came to us late on a Wednesday and we had some of these back and forth discussions with them. We tried sourcing some things on Thursday and realized the futility of finding some of these supplies. So, Friday morning we came up with this idea of trying to make it with stainless steel. So, we decided let’s just give it a test and see how it works. Within an hour and a half, we had done the first preliminary drawings of them, cut them out on the laser deburred them , and had them formed, and we had our first prototype in hand. We called up Cayuga Medical Center and they came right down the street, not that far, and picked up the samples that we had so that over the weekend the medical professionals could give it a try and see what they thought. How did it fit, how did it work for them? So, that’s great. Usually for us, we’re working with other manufacturers because we only make components, so we usually never get to talk to the end customer. So, it’s this fun thing for us to be able to talk directly with the end users and get their feedback immediately. So by Monday, Cayuga Medical Center got back to us and said, ” This is great. It’s a great concept.” They’d like it a little bit tighter fit and the first iteration of the design had, well, I’ll call them hangers, where there were two strips that went over the top of the head to keep it in place. That was our thought. But it was a little top heavy when you added the shield to it. So, using that feedback, we made our second design iteration, we took off the hangar portion of it, the two tabs that went to the top of the head, and instead made it a little bit snugger and then the other feedback they had was that if it was going to be worn all day, it would be nice to have some fastening mechanism in the back just to give it a little bit extra sturdiness. So, we made two tabs on the back of the band so that you could add a fastener to it. Although the humorous part to the story is that Clint Sealy, our master toolmaker here, who ran with this and created the design, created those tabs and thought it was fantastic. But he, let’s just say, has not a lot of hair interference when he was trying to take that to them. So, the second design he thought was great until someone else, ” Well, I tried it on and ended up pulling it off and got caught in my hair.” So, we said we got to do another little design iteration on this.

Steve Milito: That’s great. In terms of the iterations and in terms of working with the end customer, were there any challenges in terms of talking to a medical organization who might not have manufacturing expertise? Or was the communication all pretty smooth?

Illa Burbank: Communication was pretty smooth. We had one person, Seth, who was a go- between, between medical professionals and us. And they are unusual times. If we were talking about a design that was going to be used and sold to the medical community a year ago, it would not have gone this quickly. But I think right now it is a prime time for people to be creating new designs, thinking outside of the box, and making new approaches to getting solutions. So, in this case, within that two days, we had that new design. They tried it out, it was functional, they immediately did some sterilizing tests and found that both the plastic and the stainless steel were completely sterilizable. So, they’ve already made up protocols for the sterilizing of this equipment.

Steve Milito: That’s great. Did they share with you what that procedure or protocol is like? For example, is it with chemicals or is it with UV light?

Illa Burbank: They will be sending me the written procedure, but their initial procedures that they tested were temperature and I think a peroxide solution.

Steve Milito: Okay, great. Great. So, this has been a learning experience. What would you say are some lessons that the company has learned about itself during this COVID- 19 crisis as you’ve worked on this?

Illa Burbank: I’ve learned, although I knew it all along, that we have a fantastic crew. Creative, willing to pitch in, find solutions. Although we’re an essential business and we are open, we did split into two different shifts just to maximize the distancing with the employees. So, that has been a little bit of a challenge of now splitting into two different shifts and communicating amongst each other, finding new ways to communicate. The other challenge with this COVID has been not only our own communication, but communicating with our customers. Because when New York State was first shut down, we had several emails from our customers saying, ” Oh no, New York State has shut down. What’s going to happen?” So, trying to get the communication out that we’re an essential business, we’re still here for you, we can still make the shipments was a big challenge initially.

Steve Milito: There was something I forgot to ask before, and I remembered how you talked about Incodema has a branch that really specializes in additive manufacturing. And I’ve read, like a lot of people, so many stories in the media about, and they’re hyped up, but 3D printing has some tremendous applications, but it’s not the solution for everything. Did you look at 3D printing at all as part of this effort for the hospital?

Illa Burbank: There are a lot of companies, even just maker spaces, that are 3D printing plastic headbands for the face shields. And that has been actually a great solution for a lot of the hospitals. But again, those are limited use for sanitizing. Most of those are being used once and then thrown away, and then others are using them out of necessity. But it does become brittle if you are truly sterilizing them. So, they have a limited life. So that is a good interim solution, but not a great permanent solution. Our division here, Incodema 3D, is strictly metal, and it’s not cost effective to print the metal headband. It’s a lot more efficient to laser cut them.

Steve Milito: It’s interesting because even before the pandemic, there was an effort ongoing to be more sustainable, not making things that we just throw away so quickly. Do you think maybe we’ll see more medical shields like you’ve come up with in the future? Would you care to speculate on that? Do you think that’ll be a change? Do you think what you’ve done will be enduring?

Illa Burbank: I hope so. One of the challenges here is we came up with this idea, but where do we take that from here? That is not our specialty. We are usually making parts to print. So, now we’ve come up with our own idea, but how do we disseminate that information and get the approvals if necessary? So, that is another step we’ll have to take a look at, see where it goes from here.

Steve Milito: All right. Sounds good. Illa, is there anything else you’d like folks to know about Incodema? You’ve been very kind with us today in offering your time to talk about this.

Illa Burbank: I think we’ve covered most of the bases. I really appreciate you reaching out to us and having us chat about our solutions and COVID and things that manufacturers can do to help out in the way that they can do best.

Steve Milito: Well, it’s great. It’s a tremendous success story. Here at FuzeHub, we’ve heard from many manufacturers and people that want to become manufacturers, all very eager and interested to get into the COVID- 19 fight, but they didn’t necessarily have the materials and the equipment and the expertise in- house that you had. So you were ready to answer that call, and this is a great story. So, thank you for all that you’ve done.

Illa Burbank: Great. Thank you very much.

Steve Milito: Great. So on behalf of New York State Manufacturing Now, the podcast that’s powered by FuzeHub, this is Steve Milito, and before I sign off, I would just like to remind New York state manufacturers that if you need business or technical assistance, FuzeHub is still open. We’re working virtually, we’re working remotely, but you can always access us through our website. Go to fuzehubb. com. If you need some type of help, just look for the solutions program menu, request a consultation with a manufacturing expert, and you and I will have a conversation. And from there, we’ll get you connected to the right resource that can help. So again, on behalf of New York State Manufacturing Now, this is Steve Milito. I’m signing off.

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