Ford is using its engineering prowess to solve a thorny coronavirus problem: Designing a medical-grade face mask that reveals wearers’ facial expressions and also allows hearing-impaired people to read lips. The automaker, which began producing personal protective equipment early on in the coronavirus pandemic, has developed a face mask with clear panels that also filters most airborne particles.
“In those early days, everyone was learning what it was like to live in a masked environment. We quickly identified that while it’s difficult for everybody to wear a mask all day long, for folks suffering from hearing impairment, it’s an even bigger challenge,” Jim Baumbick, the leader of Ford’s PPE manufacturing effort, told CBS MoneyWatch. “That inspired us to think about how we could help serve those people because effectively [with a mask] you’re taking away another sense from them that they rely on for communication and connection.”
Baumbick also sees potential for Ford’s clear respirators to improve interactions between doctors and patients as well as teachers and students.
The mask is still in development and its filtration ability has not yet been approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). NIOSH-approved N95 respirators form a tight seal over the user’s face and filter out at least 95% of airborne particles. Any mask that claims to be an N95 but does not bear NIOSH’s stamp of approval is considered inauthentic or counterfeit, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While N95 respirators provide strong protection against the coronavirus, they remain in short supply and are recommended for use only by health care workers. Health care and industrial product manufacturer 3M recently acknowledged that it is still struggling to meet demand from frontline workers despite quadrupling production in the U.S. Currently, it is making 95 million respirators per month.
Ford expects the masks to be available in the spring, pending NIOSH certification. The company’s current focus is on testing the respirators, initially with first responders, medical workers and teachers. It’s not yet clear how Ford will distribute the masks and if they will be more widely available.
“We’re pursuing N95 certification and are working with NIOSH to make sure we go through the whole testing regime before we bring these to market,” Baumbick said.
The clear plastic panels are coated with an anti-fog treatment and can be replaced, according to Ford. The panels are designed to provide a full view of the wearers’ face, while the masks’ side panels consist of a highly efficient filtration material, Baumbick said.