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Case Study: COVID Personal Protective Equipment

Many different designs for personal protective equipment appeared during the COVID-19 pandemic. It's interesting to study the variety of designs and try to intuit for what kind of user each produce was designed.

Face masks

There is good research demonstrating the value of wearing masks as soon as a pandemic is identified. In one of the authors own words: “The countries that introduced masks from the very beginning of their outbreak have had hardly any deaths.”

The design of good masks becomes a significant area of design and development.

Design approaches

Here are some designs for face masks intended for use during the COVID pandemic.

ZShield Flex face shield (source).

Face masks have a number of drawbacks, especially for workers who must speak a lot and whose facial expressions are an important part of their work. Many of these workers are rarely in situations that require the protection of actual face masks. Face shields can be quite protective nonetheless. One study has shown that face shields can reduce exposure by 96% when worn by someone within 18 inches of a cough and 92% when worn 6 feet from a cough. (If that seems counter-intuitive, just think about it.) Notice that this shield is not attached to the forehead, where skin irritation and discomfort can occur.

The c-mask mask augmentation (source).

This isn't a mask itself. Rather, it's worn over a conventional mask. This device connects via Bluetooth to a smartphone and tablet application that can transcribe speech into text messages, make calls, or amplify the mask wearer's voice. It is meant to address the problem that face masks can muffle the mask-wearer's voice, and also help minimize contact by using voice activation to perform a number of tasks that might otherwise involve touching possibly contaminated object.

The LEAF transparent mask (source).

The obvious benefit of this mask is to allow others to see your expression while still protecting you from SARS-CoV-2. It has a HEPA N99+ replaceable filter. The deluxe models sport internal UV-C sterilization, active ventilation, and even air quality detection. While the “extras” are exactly that, the base model does address one of the biggest problems with current, typical cloth masks: they obscure the lower half of the wearer's face.

A biodegradable xylinum-based mask (source).

This design is still just conceptual, but it is feasible: to grow a biodegradable, transparent mask in a wax matrix to ensure N95-level air filtration. This design was obviously intended to address the staggering amount of non-biodegradable PPE waste being generated during the COVID pandemic. The one problem not (yet) addressed in this concept is the contamination aspect: though these masks can be composted, the question is how to ensure that the process of getting the masks into a composter once used, and therefore potentially contaminated, is safe.

The Petit Pli mask (source).

This interesting mask is made mostly of recycled plastic bottles, and the “fabric” is structured so that it unfolds as it stretches to fit your face. The advantage is that the material fibres remain relatively unstretched and so maintains integrity as an air filter system. It has an internal pouch for a replaceable high-quality filter as well as a nose wire to help it “seal” to your face. Made in small batches, this mask is relatively expensive (25 GBP or 40-45 CAD) considering its simplicity and lack of bells and whistles.

A new silicone mask for healthcare workers (source).

Healthcare workers still need lots of masks, and managing all the discarded masks remains a very serious problem. This design, by a researchers at MIT and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, are tackling both the sustainability issues and the human factors of general usability for workers as well as helping patients feel better by letting them see more of their healthcare workers' faces. Sometimes, all you need is a smile. The N95 filters are replaceable, but the body of the mask can be sterilized for multiple uses.

A pricey, high-tech, battery-powered mask (source).

This is a great example of the potential for greater suffering by the vast majority of people, who cannot afford $150 USD plus costs of replacement filters. While this design potentially has high benefit, it raises a number of questions. Doesn't every human have the right to the same level of protection? Why is the active air circulation necessary? What happens when the battery runs down? How long does it take to recharge? One might consider this a “bleeding edge” technology that will eventually become cheaper as manufacturing scales up; but still, this design does little to help people who's live situations put them in greater danger than “the 1%”.

A leather face mask (source).

This mask, made of leather, has internal pouches to hold filters, but it's not clear just how easy it is to ensure the filter is properly positioned to maximize filtration, and how to prevent a potentially contaminated filter from leaving the virus behind in the mask. There's something to be said for using natural materials rather than silicone or other manufactured/artificial materials that impose significant environmental costs, but not if they compromise user safety. Perhaps a better leather-based design is possible.
One must also wonder about the comfort of those bridle-like leather straps….

3D printed mask seal (source).

Here's another significantly different approach - the seal a mask provides against your face is an essential quality feature: the better the seal (all else being equal), the better the mask will function. Fortunately, 3D printing gives us the means to create individualized products, so why not 3D print the seal of the mask, then add whichever mask you want? Seems a reasonable way to improve everyone's mask.

Not all mask designs have been thought through that well, though….

And some designs are just weird.

General considerations

  • Careful analysis of fabrication and materials is - not surprisingly - a vitally important aspect of mask design. The research on this is only starting.
  • There is an economic disparity inherent in most mask designs: poor people are both most likely to have to risk exposure to the virus and least likely to be able to afford high quality masks. While it is likely that, over time, masks that are functional, usable, and inexpensive will be developed, the delay in their development will cause significant harm to those least able to take advantage of available technologies.

Other PPE Designs

SpeedPro no-contact menu technology (source).

Anything that is reused by many people can become a vector for spreading SARS-CoV-2. Restaurant menus are one such product. Consider how many menus there are in the world's restaurants… not a small market. These days, all those menus must be disinfected regularly, increasing operating and labour costs, and endangering workers' health. This technology is browser-based (so no need for specialized apps) and lets you call up the menu of whatever restaurant you're in by simply hovering your phone's camera near a special sticker.

A DIY sanitizer dispenser (source).

It's really not that hard to come up with easy, usable ways to help protect people. This design could be seen as a prototype, but the prototype itself is completely usable and functional. What's more, it can be easily produced in bulk without expensive tooling or manufacturing.
Can you find any aspects of the design that you can improve?

design/covid_ppe.txt · Last modified: 2020.08.16 16:36 by Fil Salustri