MFG Spotlight: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

by | Nov 23, 2020 | Spotlight

JPL was a part of the STREAM Global Innovations Manufacturing Day (MFG).
At the intersection of innovation and exploration exists the Jet Propulsion Laboratory or, as many know it, JPL. JPL is a research and development center located just up the freeway from Santa Clarita, nestled in the hills of Pasadena. It’s here that new space missions, international partnerships, and domestic agents of change are born – in every way, JPL is an organization dedicated to bettering the lives of those on Earth through exploration of the vast unknown that lies above the boundaries of the planet.
Heading much of JPL’s forward movement is Dr. Leon Alkalai, a manager in JPL’s Office of Strategic Planning. Among other tasks, Alkalai runs strategy for forming partnerships on both a domestic and international scale. As a fellow of the lab, he’s made strides in various technical areas within JPL, and as a result of his time with the organization, he’s learned a thing or two about what it means to innovate in the face of challenge.
Of course, one of the most difficult unforeseen challenges born of 2020 was that of the COVID-19 pandemic. Alongside his fellow colleagues, Alkalai quickly had to adjust to the new lifestyle of working from home and all of the other “side effects” of moving so much of JPL’s daily routines online.
“It’s very unusual for us, because we pride ourselves on creating a culture of collaborative work here,” Alkalai says. “Part of the ‘secret sauce’ of how we work together is that collaboration, and suddenly, everything is now happening from home, from behind a computer screen.”
In the face of such a swift change, however, Alkalai and the researchers at JPL did not stray from their innovative mindset. As the pandemic began to pick up speed earlier in the year, JPL began to take steps towards crafting what was most needed at that time – ventilators.
The Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible Locally project (shortened to VITAL) is a project undertaken by JPL in an effort to produce and distribute ventilators internationally in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We were alarmed and moved by the fact that the U.S. – and the rest of the world – were in such short supply of ventilators,” Alkalai shares. “We asked ourselves: what could we do to help them?”
The idea for VITAL originally centered around creating ventilators that could be assembled and utilized in anyone’s home. However, as the project progressed, JPL’s researchers quickly changed course and began working with hospitals to design ventilators that were FDA approved and thus safe to use in medical centers all across the world. As Alkalai puts it, the change took place within the course of just a few days – time was of the essence.
“This was very different from our usual creative process,” Alkalai says. “The process typically takes much longer, but with the ventilators, we didn’t have the luxury of time – we had to innovate and rapidly prototype within days, not years.”
To date, the VITAL project has over 300 registered companies licensed to produce the ventilators across six continents and 42 countries. As a result of the rapid design and testing borne of the VITAL process, JPL’s creative framework has changed how they work along the process of innovation – simply put, VITAL and the COVID-19 pandemic broke the mold of their previous creative pathways.
As made clear by the VITAL project, the resources at JPL can be utilized to solve problems the world is facing, and though their work is far from complete, Alkalai is confident that the center will continue working towards a better future for everyone.
“I hope that the technology we’re building is used for good and contributes towards saving lives all across the world,” Alkalai says. “For me, that’s what ‘mission accomplished’ means.”

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