Ford Motor Co.'s new thermoformed PET respirator, which it expects to certify to N95 standards, allows hearing-impaired people who read lips to see the wearer's face while providing protection for the wearer and people around them.
Amid a shortage of N95 disposable respirators when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in 2020, Will Brick, design prototype lead at D-Ford, the automaker's human-centered design studio, hoped to create a "robust and reusable" respirator "that was easy to manufacture and very low cost so that it could relieve some of the pressure of the demand for the disposable types," he told Plastics News.
Ford recently received patent-pending approval for the reusable, one-size-fits-all mask.
Testing of the respirator mask "continues this winter," Ford said in a Feb. 2 news release, "with expected availability sometime this spring."
Food- and medical-grade thermoformed PET sheet allows the company to "rapidly produce a complex geometry for a flexible respirator body that would fit to the face," Brick said.
The PET also "has good clarity, it's very formable, tough, very resistant to cracking or splitting," he said. "Once it's formed, it has good mechanical properties that allow it to, working with its gasket and special shape of it, allow it to reliably fit and seal to a number of different face types."
The skin-safe silicone gasket forms an airtight seal, Brick said, which is "paramount" to its efficacy for both the wearer and people in the wearer's vicinity.
Traditional cloth masks, Brick said, primarily protect "folks in the vicinity of the person wearing" them, "by catching droplets in exhalations that could be carrying virus."
A respirator, he said, "is primarily meant to protect the person wearing it. … There are respirators that have exhaust valves that exhaust unfiltered air while any air coming into the respirator is forced to go through the filtration material or media."
Ford's new respirator filters air coming in and out, while blocking droplets with "a solid plastic shield rather than an absorbent material," Brick said.
The mask also doesn't fog up glasses, he added.
"People like [clear plastic] face shields because you can see through them but usually the person is wearing a cloth mask underneath," Brick said.
"One of the things that's missing during the pandemic is the power of a smile," Jim Baumbick, vice president of Ford's enterprise product line management and leader of its Project Apollo personal protective equipment manufacturing effort, said in the release. "This clear respirator promises to improve interactions between neighbors, at the store and for those who have hearing impairments."
The respirator offers a "safe solution where visible human expression is desired, such as teaching, air travel and sales," the release said.