“The first step in solving a problem is to recognize that it does exist.”
Several years ago, one of the decks here at the Hardened Power Homestead needed to be stained. I used a power sprayer and wore an N95 mask during painting. It was a large job, and after finishing I went inside to clean up and shower. When I looked at my face in the mirror, I did a double-take. There were two dark streaks running downward along my cheeks, parallel to the sides of my nose. It was obvious that the mask had not protected me. I had tried to fit it correctly, had pinched the little metal band against my nose, and had done a ‘self-test’ by exhaling into the mask and trying to feel airflow around the edges of the mask.
Disconcerting, to say the least. I had bought the mask, used the mask, put up with the heat and discomfort of the mask, and still wound up breathing paint. I mentally filed the experience under “there has to be a better way” and reached out to a friend who is a paramedic in a busy metropolitan city. I started to explain what happened, and before I even finished he was nodding his head, holding up his hands, and saying “I know, I know… it’s a problem.”
What he explained was fascinating and worrisome. Turns out that getting a proper fit with an N95 (or any disposable mask) is a known issue. Most hospitals, for example, are required to perform annual fit tests on their employees. The test subject dons an N95, followed by a larger plastic hood, and then a tiny amount of saccharin is released into the intermediate airspace. The saccharin has a very strong smell, and if the subject reacts, his mask is not fitting correctly. It is common for this test to be repeated Several times as the subject attempts to fit their mask correctly. Eventually, the fit is good, the person gets a passing grade, and he goes back to work in the hospital.
N95 Fit Testing
This bothered me, and I started paying more attention to just how many people were using N95 style masks for protection. Hospitals are obvious, but I now think they are actually low in terms of total usage. Dental offices, drywall installers, body shop workers, allergy sufferers, construction, demolition, remediation crews, and more. The ubiquitous N95 was seemingly everywhere once I started to think about it. Fire crews, smoke jumpers, soldiers, paramedics, EMT’s, pest control, woodworkers, landscapers, insulation installers, janitors and maids. The list kept growing the more I thought about it, and so did my resolve.
I thought perhaps I could do something about it and was determined to try. This was not misplaced confidence or tilting at windmills. I have a background in product design, manufacturing, and medical devices. I helped pioneer the use of rapid prototyping in the medical industry before 3D printers were even a thing, and I now owned a company that had built a reputation for innovation and quality manufacturing. I thought again about the sheer number of people impacted by the ‘false positive’ of wearing an N95, thinking they were protected, and I wanted to try.
Over the next three years, we tried and failed to get a product that worked well. My original goal was perhaps a bit ambitious: Using nothing but photographs of a human face, create an accurate 3D model. From that model, create a comfortable, rugged appliance that solves the chronic fitting problem of disposable face masks.
A family member who is in the military was looking at a prototype and said, “I wouldn’t even need an N95 if I had this thing. I would grab any chunk of clothing I had, soak it in water, and use this to get through smoke, gas, or… whatever.” I realized that there were bigger implications — improvised masks. Any material that was an acceptable barrier — a T-shirt, a towel, a bandage, a bandanna, a shemagh — virtually anything could be a barrier if it could be sealed against the face. My resolve strengthened.
I learned that my reach was exceeding my grasp, and we consistently failed. The software was not good enough, the computers were not powerful enough, the 3D printing technology was not advanced enough. The project lived, died, lived, died, and died again. Here in the shop, we started calling it the Frankenstein project. As I write this, there are two plastic bins in the shop full of failed prototypes.
Then the CAD software got more capable. The topographical mapping software got more accurate and more intelligent. 3D printing technology using hyper-strong rubber became more feasible. I restarted the project (again), and we started making units for employees, family, friends, and early-adopters. Feedback was very, very good. Frankenstein was alive!
It is now the summer of 2018, and I am delighted to say that we can do it. Using proprietary software, unique hardware, and hard-won techniques, we can produce a custom appliance for anyone, anywhere in the world, without even meeting them. The result is a soft, comfortable, rubber frame that will fit any human face (so far), very accurately. The included elastic shock cords are durable, comfortable, and adjustable.
The possibilities are truly amazing — medical professionals, first responders, allergy sufferers, industrial workers, and many others now have an effective solution to the long-standing problem of accurate fit. Now it takes no skill, practice, or ‘perfect world’ scenarios. You simply put it on, and it works. Children, elderly, and incapacitated alike can now have an accurate, effective seal for their protection.
We look forward to building you one. The product page is found here.
QOD, LOD, TOD:
Quote of the day:
“Problem solving is hunting. It is savage pleasure and we are born to it.”
Link of the day:
Glen Tate is a friend, a fan of our gear, and a real watchman on the wall. His bestselling book series, 299 days, has earned a permanent spot on the bookshelf here at the Hardened Power Homestead. Check out his website, 299 days.
Thought of the day:
The present divisions in our country are characterized by the basic difference between people who demand respect, comfort, and understanding versus those who strive to earn them. Please choose thoughtfully.