Tackett Relishes Challenge of Creating Solutions for Complex Problems

June 2, 2020

Ed Tackett’s personal motto is a message of mission: “If I do one positive thing every day, I can make the world a better place.” In his job as Director of Workforce Development at University of Louisville’s Additive Manufacturing Institute for Science and Technology (AMIST), he has ample opportunity to live out that mantra, especially during the coronavirus and its accompanying challenges.

When it became apparent in mid-March 2020 that COVID-19 was endangering front line healthcare workers due to lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), Tackett moved quickly to engage Speed School students to proffer a solution that would make a real difference on the ground.

“This isn’t a project where we have a committee and produce a report. This happens in a matter of hours. We scope the project, look at the lowest hanging fruit,” he said. “What can we do with the equipment, materials and skill base we have? The answer was personal protective equipment, specifically face shields,” said Tackett.

Over a period of just a few months, the 3-D printing and production pool created with more than 90 undergraduate and graduate Speed School volunteer engineering students has produced, assembled, sanitized and distributed more than 50,000 face shields to health care workers to help keep them safe from the pandemic.

Currently, face shield production at AMIST is almost wrapped up, but the personal protective equipment requests have spawned numerous other AMIST-related projects such as 3-D printed swabs, ambo bags, mask decontamination stations, mobile sterilization stations, ventilators, filters and more.

Tackett has been involved with Speed School’s Dr. Mahendra Sunkara’s project to marry two technologies to create N-95 masks made of carbon nanowires that track and kill the coronavirus as it passes through the mask material. Since the mask materials do not carry a static charge, they don’t degrade over time and can be washed.

Working with local industry partners such as WhipMix and Lexmark, researchers and manufacturers are putting together masks using filter inserts of the new material and are also planning on N95 clam shell masks,” said Tackett. “Of all the things we’re working on, that one is potentially a game changing technology,” he said.

Plugging that gap in the local and state PPE supply chain until he could hand the project off to industry partners to operationalize the production of the face shields is the kind of high-pressure, time-sensitive job that Tackett excels in.

Before coming to University of Louisville in 2014, Tackett spent his early years in the U.S. Navy in shipboard air warfare (AW) operations, military intelligence and counter-terrorism going to hot spots and affected regions around the world, whether it was a combat situation, hurricane or typhoon.

“I thrive in high-pressure with tight deadlines, with lots of information coming in from different places; and in quickly synthesizing that info into an actionable plan. In the military, it’s all about the mission. What do we have to get done and how do we do it with the resources we have on hand? You go in with what you have, not what you wish you had. I am used to scenarios where it is, ‘Here is the problem, now solve it,’” he said.

After his stint in the military, Tackett amassed more than twenty years of experience teaching and designing in the areas of additive manufacturing infrastructure, CAD/CAM software, technology implementation and new construction design at the University of California Irvine and in San Diego City College. His projects have included funding through the Department of Defense’s Technology Reinvestment Program (TRP) and the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technologies (NIST) lab builder program.

A love for additive manufacturing became a family affair for Tackett. “When I was faculty at a college in Southern California, both my kids took my class and they fell in love with 3-D printing,” he said. Now his daughter works for a California company who 3-D prints energy drinks and his son works in 3-D printing for Boeing in St. Louis.

Growing up in Detroit in a blue-collar steelworker family instilled a strong work ethic and sense of civic responsibility in Tackett, which be brings to bear every day on the job. “In my family, we would talk about something and say, ‘Something needs to be done about this, and then say, well, I am somebody, why don’t I do something about this?’” he said.

Tackett credits the efforts of student volunteers as critical to the effectiveness of the AMIST COVID-19 Response Team he built. “My job is to put it together, give them a list and say, ‘Go conquer that hill.’ What we found was that our students are even more capable than we expected. Any student involved in COVID-19 response has real world practical experience now to leverage when they get in the work force,” he said.

Tackett was impressed with more than just the skills sets of engineering students. “These young people today are rock stars,” he said. “They are volunteering their time assembling face masks for people they’ve never met and will never meet. They care about their community. It’s easy to go home and watch Netflix, but they stepped up and said, ‘I am somebody and I am going to make a difference.’ Our ongoing message to the community is that University of Louisville is here to help,” said Tackett.

Next up for the AMIST employee is the transition back to in-person operations on campus, which will involve a slew of logistical challenges he will help tackle for the university. But Tackett said he hopes we use the opportunity to pause and reflect as individuals and as a country as we move forward.

“It’s all about what kind of society do we want to be when we grow up?” said Tackett. “We’ve opened the closet and showed everyone where our skeletons are, and we’re having our ‘Come to Jesus moment.’ Are we going to embrace and take the lessons learned to make a stronger country or are we going to use the output of this to deepen the divisions among our citizens? We need to start working together as a nation, as true patriots for the better of all mankind not just some of mankind. That is the true spirit of America – taking care of each other.”