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Masks are badly designed. Can these startups make better ones—and fast?

When it comes to masks, fit and filtration are the two major issues, and they’re both ripe for innovation.

Masks are badly designed. Can these startups make better ones—and fast?
[Images: courtesy Ministry of Supply]

Around the world, masks and personal protective equipment for healthcare workers are running dangerously low as the coronavirus continues to spread. So some fashion brands are stepping in.

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Some companies, like American Giant, Laws of Motion, and Under Armour, are trying to meet the immediate need by making large quantities of surgical masks as fast as possible. But others are rethinking the very basics of mask design and experimenting with different materials and manufacturing techniques as they develop solutions.

And it’s about time. Even before the coronavirus crisis, doctors criticized surgical masks for their fit. Dan Formosa, who has spent his career designing medical equipment, says hospitals tend to select masks based on cost rather than on how well they fit and perform. As a result, many masks don’t fit snugly on the face, which is both uncomfortable and potentially dangerous, since it means that virus-laden droplets can pass in and out of the mask.

[Image: courtesy Ministry of Supply]
In recent weeks, fashion labels have seen a significant drop in sales, as millions of people have been laid off and consumer spending has plummeted. Some brands have turned to mask-making as a way to keep their teams engaged and busy. They’re rapidly prototyping new designs that solve some of the known problems with masks and retooling their machinery to make them. All the companies I spoke with for this story are donating their masks to healthcare workers, but they’re asking customers to support their cause by either donating money directly or buying products that will allow them to fund the mask-making. And in many cases, their customers are rising to the occasion. “We’re donating a respirator mask for every pair of shoes sold, and our sales have been up,” says Casey Kerrigan, cofounder of OESH shoes. “I’m thinking many people feel helpless and are just looking for a way to help.”

Ministry of Supply

Gihan Amarasiriwardena, cofounder and president of Ministry of Supply, has spent the last two weeks thinking about the fundamentals of mask design. He says that, at the most basic level, masks have two features that prevent particles from spreading: fit and filtration. His team is attempting to improve on both. The company, which is based in Boston, is partnering with doctors, design experts at MIT, and MakerHealth, a network that advocates for prototyping of medical devices.

[Image: courtesy Ministry of Supply]
The resulting mask design decoupled the mask from the filtration, which allowed the company to choose a material that prioritized fit over filtration. Unique for a fashion company, Ministry of Supply is also creating its own filters, which will slide into a pocket in the mask. The company uses a non-woven material to make its clothing, which can filter out particles when compressed. “Non-woven fabric fuses together several layers of material, much like paper fuses together layers of cellulose fibers,” says Amarasiriwardena. “We can work with our partners to create a filter that rises to HEPA standard.”

[Image: courtesy Ministry of Supply]

For the masks, the company is using viscose, which is highly breathable, soft, and moisture wicking. To 3D-print them, it’s using a Shima Seiki machine, which is typically used for knitting materials like wool into sweaters. The 3D-knitting process allows them to create a mask that better accounts for the face’s complex topography, and since the resulting fabric is stretchy, it can adapt to the wearer’s mouth and nose.

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[Image: courtesy Ministry of Supply]
Now that the company has settled on the design, they’ve moved into production. They can make one mask in under nine minutes and have already planned to make an initial donation of 5,000 masks to Boston healthcare workers.

OESH Shoes

When Casey Kerrigan quit her job as a doctor to launch a shoe company called OESH in 2011, she realized that shoe factories didn’t have the capacity to create the soles she wanted to make for her shoes. At the time, 3D printers were starting to emerge, so she decided to 3D-print her soles using a flexible elastomer material that comes in the form of pellets.

[Photo: courtesy OESH]

When it became clear that the U.S. needed masks, several designers developed prototypes for 3D printers that used hard plastic, but Kerrigan thought it would be better to use a soft elastomer instead. Since she had experience using a soft elastomer for insoles, she was able to design a mask that better adapted to the body. She adapted a pattern for a respirator mask from a company called Copper3D, but swapped out the hard plastic for an elastomer that provided a more comfortable fit across the nose and mouth. (It is available for anyone to download here.) “It can make an airtight seal,” says Kerrigan.”This is currently really hard to do even with N95 masks.”

[Photo: courtesy OESH]

The mask has are two circular vents with removable caps that allow you to insert circular air filters. Kerrigan recommends using commercial filters, like the MERV-13 typically used for air-conditioners, which are still available at Lowe’s or Home Depot. (HEPA vacuum bags would also work.) Like Ministry of Supply’s mask, this one is washable, as long as you remove the filter material. It’s also 100% recyclable.

[Photo: courtesy OESH]
OESH is using its 3D printers to make masks for workers in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the company is based. Kerrigan says that many local hospitals currently have enough PPE, although this may change in the future. For the time being, she is donating these masks to people working in senior centers and other healthcare facilities with vulnerable populations, which are currently experiencing a shortage of masks.

Rothy’s

Unlike the two other startups, Rothy’s has focused its energies on creating masks that have a good fit but no filtration system. In other words, this mask isn’t designed to protect the wearer from infection but rather to ensure that droplets don’t leave the wearer’s mouth and enter the atmosphere, potentially endangering other people.

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[Photo: courtesy Rothy’s]

These masks aren’t necessarily meant to be used in a COVID-19 ward. But there are many places where healthcare workers need masks to curb the spread of the virus, including those working in lower-risk areas of the hospital. And now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all Americans wear masks when they go out in public, there’s likely to be an increased demand across the board. Roth Martin, cofounder and CEO of Rothy’s, realized the need early on. “Our factory is in China and our workers over there experienced the crisis before us,” he says. “Every day people wanted masks, but couldn’t get their hands on them. So our workers were the ones who suggested we make masks.”

[Photo: courtesy Rothy’s]
Rothy’s makes its shoes using a 3D-knitting machine; the fibers are made from recycled water bottles. Over the last month, the company has reprogrammed a third of its machines to make masks out of the same knitted fabric as its shoes and bags. And much like Rothy’s other products, the masks are designed to be washed repeatedly without losing their shape. Instead of a single layer of fabric, this mask has two layers in an effort to capture even more moisture that leaves the wearer’s mouth. The mask is designed to fit comfortably on the face, but also be breathable, so the wearer can go about life comfortably.

Rothy’s has made the design of these masks open-source and has spearheaded the Open Innovation Coalition, which invites brands to join forces to develop masks. (They will announce which other companies have signed up shortly.) For now, Rothy‘s is getting ready to ship over its first batch of several hundred masks, which will be available for sale and support a donation of medical-grade masks to American health care professionals on the front lines.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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