Think[box]'s time to shine


Staff at Sears think[box], including alumnus Ian Charnas, engineer quick solutions at a time with no time to spare.


As the innovation lead at Sears think[box], Ian Charnas ’05 is accustomed to moving boldly from idea to prototype. But the new pace of innovation is surprising even him.

Recently, he and his team helped dream up a quicker way to make an essential hospital device—a face shield that helps protect caregivers from spreading or contracting germs. Working with another alumnus and another university, they quickly built a prototype and a supply chain. Soon, Charnas expects to see manufacturers churning out the shields by the thousands.

At a time of fear and uncertainty, Case Western Reserve University’s innovation center is quickening its stride. With an innovative staff and rapid prototyping capabilities, Sears think[box] may be uncommonly equipped for the moment.

The seven-story innovation icon at the edge of campus is, like much of the city, closed for regular business. But staffers are working remotely and imaginatively. From morning COVID task force meetings come ideas and project updates.  When it’s time to prototype, Charnas might slip into the building to operate one of the laser cutters or 3D printers—on an empty floor where social distancing is not an issue.

Sears think[box] does not directly mass-produce devices. It's equipped to design and produce a prototype, a new product ready to be tested or manufactured. Charnis said they have no problem finding industry partners willing to take their designs and run with them. 

“I think it shows what one can do at think[box],” said Charnas, one of the founders of the innovation center and its Director of Innovation and Technology. “Right now, our aim is to help rapidly design and build prototypes of things hospitals urgently need.”

The aggressive approach reflects the wishes of the dean of the Case School of Engineering. As the health crisis became clear, Venkataramanan "Ragu" Balakrishnan called on faculty and staff to drop what they were doing and focus their research and labs on the coronavirus pandemic. Stat.

“When the world needs us, we have to step up,” the dean said. “We should be able to contribute in a meaningful way locally, regionally and globally. It’s a responsibility of being an engineer.”

Charnas, who earned bachelor’s degrees in mechanical and computer engineering from Case, said that attitude pervades the region’s innovation ecosystem.

“People are answering the call,” he said. “People are answering the phone at midnight. This is really a time when everyone is pulling out all the stops.”

The face shield project illustrates the state of the art.

Hospitals report an urgent need for personal protective equipment. Face shields are high on the list of the Top 10 supplies needed by doctors that the office of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine circulated.

Charnas resolved to find a quick way of making the shields and he and his team began tinkering with ideas. Assistance came from Nottingham Spirk, the product design firm near campus that often works with think[box]. Bill Rabbitt ’03, MS ’06, the company’s Engineering Project Manager, is a former classmate of Charnas’ at the Case School of Engineering.

“We knew there was a critical need for protective gear that could be quickly assembled and mass produced,” Rabbitt said. “We were able to assemble a team that could make this a reality in less than a week.”

The team took an open-source version of a face shield, meant to be 3D printed, and redesigned it for injection molding. That resulted in a product easier to mass produce and to sterilize—an essential feature for hospitals.

As they moved forward, they discovered that an innovation team at Penn State Behrend led by Jason Williams, an assistant teaching professor of engineering,  had reached similar conclusions. The two teams collaborated, combining resources from two states.

The new face shield, which resembles a clear welder’s mask, will be made in both Ohio and Pennsylvania. The supply chain includes three Erie, PA manufacturers that are building the models, molding the frames and producing and shipping the shields. Akron-based R.C. Musson Rubber Co. will make the rubber fastening straps. Die Cut Products of Cleveland will supply additional clear shields.

Hospitals, including Cleveland Clinic, have already placed orders, Charnas said. Other players could easily join the market. The innovators at CWRU, Nottingham Spirk and Penn State are making their patterns and downloads available to the public at no change. Check them out HERE

Meanwhile, Charnas and his staff are on to other hurried quests.  Five or six other projects are in the works, Charnas said, and ideas come in almost daily, often from hospital innovation teams.

“It’s actually a very exciting time to be in innovation,” Charnas said. “You can help more people, and more quickly, than we’ll see again in our lives, hopefully."


Sears think[box] has set up an application system that allows people to request prototyping, design and fabrication support for projects that target the pandemic. You can find it HERE.

Want to help staff at think[box] and other Case labs and institutes find solutions? The Dean's Discretionary Fund is supporting research and projects that address the pandemic.