It has been almost a year since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and the shortage of N95 masks remains a debilitating issue for many around the world. To alleviate some degree of the issue, Ford has come up with reusable and transparent N95 masks, with an emphasis on delivering them to under-resourced areas this coming spring.
In a media statement, the company also notes that Ford is has successfully obtained "patent-pending approval for an innovative new clear respirator that it expects to certify to N95 standards of virus elimination that allows for better expression and communication, which can also benefit hearing-impaired people who read lips." The company says that it will deliver over 25 million "free medical-grade masks" in the following five weeks.
The case for clear masks — Ford isn't the only company pushing for transparent masks. Apple has attempted the same approach. The premise behind clear masks is that they are more accessible than face coverings that obscure a person's view of someone's expressions and lip movements. Covering up these visual cues poses difficulties to the deaf community, among others.
For Ford, the idea is to mainstream the masks to industries like air travel, sales, and teaching for unburdened human expression. Jim Baumbick, vice president, Entreprise Product Line Management at Ford, stated, "One of the things that’s missing during the pandemic is the power of a smile. This clear respirator promises to improve interactions between neighbors, at the store, and for those who have hearing impairments."
What makes these Ford masks stand out is that their base material is thermoformed PET sheet. This particular material is low-cost and easy to replicate at large scale and is able to withstand rough pressure, including cracks and splits. The company also says that the mask is reliable for varying face shapes and sizes. The covering comes with a safe silicone gasket, which is critical for limiting the transmission of respiratory particles.
What Ford hasn't talked about (yet) is whether these clear and reusable masks are able to tackle the biggest problem and complaint that comes with transparent coverings: in-mask steam and fog. These masks become foggy because of the condensation of the wearer's breathing. It's a tiny problem compared to the rest of the pandemic which has altered life as we know it, but if Ford can fix the fog, we have a champion in the arena.