Manufacturing & Technology and Technology

Duty in Iraq inspires reservist's invention: Mtek founder hoping face mask will save lives

August 21, 2006

Impressed with the design, which military personnel admitted was years ahead of what's now in use, the Army's Soldier Systems Center purchased 10 of the prototypes Aug. 1 for testing.

Mahan, 23, of Martinsville, ultimately hopes to create manufacturing jobs in Indiana by mass-producing the face masks for the military and law-enforcement agencies. With the help of his father, cousin and close friend, he's formed Mtek Weapon Systems to start the process.

"It's definitely a radical departure from anything that's made now," Mahan said of his device. "We really just want to save lives."

What makes the shield attractive is its lightweight and impressive strength. It weighs just a pound and is mostly made from Kevlar, the material developed by DuPont Co. used in soft-armor applications such as bulletproof vests. The face mask survived seven shots from a .44-caliber Magnum at close range during tests the Mahans conducted themselves.

They have filed a patent application and could receive protection by the end of the month. In fact, several companies interested in purchasing the technology have approached Mahan, who so far has declined the offers, he said.

The 2001 graduate of Tabernacle Christian School in Martinsville enlisted in the Marine reserves because he's a patriot who loves his country, he said. His unit was deployed to Iraq Jan. 1, 2003, about two months before the U.S. invasion. Trained as a ground communications technician, he nonetheless manned an M-249 machine gun in southern Iraq.

Mahan's idea for a face mask arose from an incident in which fragments from an improvised exploding device knocked the front teeth out of a fellow unit member.

"It's personal for me," he said. "There's something that needs to be done about that."

After Mahan returned from his sixmonth tour, his search for facial protection yielded only riot-style shields that weigh about 4 pounds and distort vision, he said. That prompted him to purchase CAD soft- ware to design a mask of his own. With the help of cousin Nicholas Mahan, the company's design manager, the two made a mold and manufactured a rough version of the present design.

Mahan was set to use the face mask after his redeployment June 1, 2005, but a motorcycle accident on Interstate 465 resulted in knee surgery that put him out of commission. The mishap, however, gave Mahan more time to perfect the apparatus.

Last December, he took the face mask to Indianapolis-based Prototype Development LLC, which manufactures composites for the auto racing, aircraft and marine industries. Owner Mark Scott made the prototype the Army currently is testing.

"It's one of those, 'Gee, I wish I had thought of that' inventions,'" Scott said. "It's pretty obvious when you look at it, but it's a matter of making something that the troops will wear."

The mask, which fits the designs of both Army and Marine Corps helmets, has attracted the attention of the armies of Korea and Australia as well, Mahan said.

The face mask is sold from the company Web site to individuals for $350, which basically covers the cost, Mahan said.

Company partners have invested roughly $50,000 in their venture and have applied for grant money from the state's 21st Century Fund to continue their research. They want to expand into developing shoulder and side body armor.

The partners are Mahan's father, Vance Mahan, president; his cousin, Nicholas Mahan, design manager; and Jamin Baxter, marketing director.

Mahan has a year left in the reserves and is unsure whether he will re-enlist. He eventually wants to get a college degree. He may have to delay those plans, however, if his sideline project pans out.
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