Clear Respirator Innovation Could Disrupt the Future of Working at Ford

The work that led to Ford’s innovative new clear respirator through Project Apollo could ultimately change the way employees work across the company.

In less than a year, the rapid sprint approach and cross-collaboration of Project Apollo has broken down barriers at Ford, with the company delivering millions of units of personal protective equipment when the nation needs it most, but it could also have a lasting impact on the way employees work.

Most recently, Project Apollo yielded a low-cost N95-rated transparent respirator – which helps the hearing-impaired and others needing to maintain the facial expressions lost while using conventional cloth and filtered masks. Enabling a full range of expression can also benefit those working in education, air travel and sales.

In addition to facilitating facial expression, the respirators differ from the more than 65 million medical-grade face masks Ford has already produced and distributed around the country because they are true respirators, which protect the user by filtering air the person breathes. The respirators are also reusable.

Project Apollo members from across Ford worked together for several months to create PPE to fight the global pandemic, most recently developing a transparent respirator.

Will Brick, design prototype lead with D-Ford, is one of a handful of team members who worked on Project Apollo. He said his work on the initiative has been a great way to meet people from across disciplines and ranks throughout the company. Brick hopes that over time, the flexible, rapid way of working to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been similar to the pace of a startup company, can lead to more direct cross-functional, cross-departmental collaboration.

“It’s taken the idea of levels and silos and done away with the parts of that structure that can create barriers to working nimbly,” he said. “It would be fantastic to be able to translate that experience into the day-to-day, rather than going back to our typical ways of working separately.”

Project Apollo has reduced Ford’s hierarchal structure similar to how the space mission of the same name enabled NASA to make its moonshot in the 1960s, by seizing on good ideas regardless of who they came from. NASA’s mission was enabled by the technology and communications equipment manufactured and operated in mission control by former Ford subsidiary Philco-Ford.

Hana Forbes, program management supervisor, joined Project Apollo in January as project manager for development of the clear respirator. Working on the project has helped her look at things through a different lens, she said, and instilled a great sense of pride for her. It’s helped her to see the company’s product development process in an accelerated fashion.

The shell of the reusable respirators is formed from low-cost molded plastic and has filters on the sides.

“It’s a little out of the ordinary for those of us working at Ford to be working on non-automotive products,” she said. “I’m even more open-minded now than before and have a better understanding of the full product development cycle. Instead of seeing it in a period of three years, you’re seeing it in three months.”

The product development process has been simplified for the respirators, in alignment with the pillar of the plan to simplify everything, while upholding the quality expected from Ford. “It really shows the rest of the world what Ford, as a company, is capable of,” said Forbes. “We can be nimble, we are innovative and we’re one of the best manufacturers out there.”

Forbes is hopeful the company adopts more projects like Apollo because it could give more employees vital experience working outside their typical role. It could also foster teamwork and collaboration across departments, she said.

“Everyone is willing to help on Project Apollo,” said Forbes. “Anybody from any department – if we say we need help with Project Apollo, they find the time to help us. I’d like us to get to a place where we’re all able to react that way in our regular roles.”

Ford’s transparent respirators enable a full range of human expression.

Building back human connection

As the world began limiting social interaction and adopted mask-wearing and other personal protective equipment measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, a critical element of human interaction – facial expression – was largely lost. Transparent masks are an innovative way Ford is helping to balance safety and human connection.

Research in neuroscience, anthropology and psychology shows the importance of facial expressions in human connection, belonging and psychological safety. Facial expression, particularly related to a person’s mouth, conveys empathy, kindness and compassion. Studies show that talking to others with limited or unclear facial expressions impedes our ability to trust and empathize.

“You never know how much you rely on expression and the movement of somebody’s mouth until you can’t see it,” said Forbes. “Our expressions make us more human.”

While masks limit our ability to connect with others, they also may impact the way we express and feel our own emotions. Facial feedback hypothesis suggests that our brains react to the emotions we express on our faces. However, we are less likely to use facial expressions when others cannot see them. The simple act of wearing a mask to cover our mouths decreases our risk of getting and transmitting coronavirus, but it also decreases our social and emotional well-being.

A clear vision emerges

When the first phase of Project Apollo concluded with Ford having produced millions of medical-grade masks and millions more face shields, patient ventilators, washable isolation gowns and more than 30,000 air-purifying respirators, Brick and other members of D-Ford wondered if there were more products the personal protective equipment market wasn’t addressing. What they found was that there was still no clear mask that had N95 certification, which Ford’s respirator is expected to achieve.

Clear respirators are in high demand from the hearing-impaired community, as well as teachers, medical professionals working in neonatal units and those who speak English as a second language, for whom facial expression is an integral part of communication.

Brick had been following the concept of a clear respirator early in Project Apollo and continued monitoring studies. The shortage of N95-rated respirators for healthcare workers created the need for a low-cost, reusable respirator. Brick, with support from D-Ford teammates, continued to chip away at the project over the summer, sampling prototypes in the mirror.

“That’s when I noticed I could see myself smiling and I could see my expression, and that was about the time we were getting some requests to look into making transparent panels for traditional face masks,” he said. Adding see-through panels would have been problematic, though, because the plastic would crinkle and fog. “This is a way to solve that problem, and the other potential benefits started to add up,” he said.

Brick also incorporated feedback from members of the Ford Empowering Diverse Abilities (FEDA) employee resource group after conducting a virtual demonstration of the respirator over the summer. The group offers resources, support and networking opportunities for employees with disabilities, as well as support to employees who are family members or caregivers of people with disabilities. Group members are also expected to be involved in testing the respirators.

The respirators, made using a low-cost plastic, are formed quickly in a molding process. After a tool is plunged into the plastic, a vacuum pulls plastic down around it. The shell is cut out before holes for straps are added. The plastic can bend and flex where needed, creating an airtight seal to the face of anyone wearing it, which separates the respirator from other masks on the market. A silicone gasket makes the shell fit comfortably around the face.

Ford’s clear respirator also requires less filtration material on the sides than conventional face masks. It may be longer-lasting than its counterparts, Brick added, because the filters are mounted to the side and not in the direct path of respiration. This helps protect them from being soiled by droplets a person exhales.

Production is expected to begin soon.

Reshaping the Future of Ford

A Detroit-area native, Brick eschewed Silicon Valley in favor of an “enormous sandbox with incredible history” at home. Now, he said, Ford has the power to influence and reshape the physical world people experience around them, just as it did more than 100 years ago with the Model T and continues with its work in autonomous and electrified vehicles in addition to personal protective equipment.

“It bothers me that Facebook and others are referred to as ‘big tech,’” he said. “No social media app has ever landed another human being on the moon.”

Brick, the former general manager of TechShop Detroit, a collaborative makerspace since purchased by Ford, says the company’s ambition to develop collaborative working environments across facilities is a good step toward fostering innovation that enables employees to work more efficiently.

“When I think about why people choose to work one place or another, the things they are ultimately looking for are an opportunity to do interesting work and work well,” he said. “That’s where Ford has a huge opportunity.”

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