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Humans of Manufacturing: Heroes

Snorkels Become Critical COVID-19 Protection


In times of need, manufacturing is driven by a philosophy John Lennon said best, “There are no problems, only solutions.” Today, manufacturers have pivoted to produce the critical supplies and equipment necessary to battle COVID-19 at a rate never seen before. SME’s Humans of Manufacturing Heroes Edition tells the stories of the teams, companies and partnerships adapting to produce the tools needed to fight this global pandemic. Going behind the scenes to share how these once-in-a-lifetime transformations are happening and the people making it all possible.


A 2012 Volkswagen hatchback normally wouldn’t make the list of top productivity tools for a software developer.

However, in March as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the U.S., Varun Mani, VP of Advanced Research for Vuforia at PTC, started spending his evenings crisscrossing across Greater Boston making special deliveries. When his daily Vuforia programming routine wound down, his volunteer courier shift began – shuttling an experimental protective breathing mask to doctors’ homes and hospitals for testing.

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Varun Mani makes a delivery of durable protective gear for testing. (Photo/Alex Pickering)

The deliveries were for MasksOn, a nonprofit organization created in March to address the dire shortage of medical personal protective equipment (PPE) at hospitals in Boston and across America during the pandemic. Looking beyond 3D-printed face shields and home-sewn masks, MasksOn has been repurposing full-face snorkel masks – with the help and expertise of Boston’s medical, academic and tech communities – for high-risk clinicians in direct contact with COVID-19 patients. The snorkel mask is attached to a medical-grade filter (types that are still widely available to hospitals) using a custom-engineered adapter that creates an airtight seal over the snorkel holes.

“I was super dubious about the idea at first,” said Mani, recalling an early delivery to a doctor waiting for him in the hospital’s parking lot. “So I asked the doctor, ‘Is this even helpful what we are doing here?’ And he says, ‘You have no clue. We are literally going to run out of masks in a week, and this is going to be so important. Not today, but literally in a week.’”

The idea for modifying a diving mask for medical use came from Dr. Jackie Boehme and Dr. Alex Stone, colleagues at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. According to MasksOn, Stone was inspired by a snorkeling experience in Hawaii. The two doctors later reached out to Eugene Mann, a Google product manager, to help explore the concept – and in mid-March they recruited volunteers online from area universities, hospitals and tech companies.

The MasksOn design is meant to be used as a last resort only and follows recently introduced FDA guidance that permits the use of non-FDA-approved experimental devices.

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MasksOn Founders Dr. Jackie Boehme and Dr. Alex Stone (Photo/MasksOn)

Design, experimenting and prototyping of the masks was first done on the top floor of PTC’s Boston headquarters. The custom adapter prototypes, tooling and other components were 3D-printed in PTC’s maker lab.

“We basically turned the 17th floor into Tony Stark's lab and testing facility,” says Bradley Sauln, a Senior Technical Services Engineer for Onshape at PTC.

Within three weeks of the launch of MasksOn, PTC had one half of its building completely dedicated to prototyping and testing the adapters for their fit. And had set up two prototype assembly lines.

The importance of the project was not lost on PTC employees volunteering their free time.

“Nothing against my day job, but when 5 o’ clock rolls around, I’m thinking ‘Oh my God, I’m now working to help save lives,’” said Mani.

Since the project began in mid-March, MaskOn has shipped nearly 16,000 masks (the equivalent of an estimated 12 million clinician days of protection) to institutions and individual clinicians – for free. The nonprofit’s first priority was getting masks to anesthesiologists who operate ventilators, surgeons who perform emergency procedures on COVID-19 patients, and others who are most exposed to airborne forms of the coronavirus. The face shields are only available to healthcare professionals in hospitals, nursing homes and other institutions that regularly interact with COVID-positive patients.

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The 17th floor of PTC’s Boston Seaport headquarters – usually reserved for company meetings, employee socials and presentations – was transformed into a prototyping lab for developing and testing protective equipment for healthcare workers. (Photo/Alex Pickering)

Designing the custom adapters and modifications for the snorkel masks couldn’t be done in a bubble. At times, more than a dozen engineers were collaborating on the CAD models. PTC’s Onshape software, a cloud-based product development platform, enabled multiple engineers to simultaneously work on the same CAD model online and see each other’s feedback and edits in real time. This was an important capability with team members working from home or spread across the building, adhering to social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders.

MaskOn’s volunteer roster is like a physical embodiment of LinkedIn, with co-workers, former colleagues, fellow college alumni and even competitors working together. Companies providing goods, services, financial support or volunteers include: Alphabet, Bolt, Dragon Innovation, E14 Fund, Fortify, Fikst, Formlabs, Google, Kyruus, Markforged, Origin.io, Ox, Prodct, PTC, Scenic Advisement, Sikorsky, Tulip, Verily, Voodoo Manufacturing and Wilson Sonsini.

Even more are volunteering as individuals, including a number of students from Boston-area medical schools.

Achieving so much in such a short amount of time isn’t easy, especially when there is still work to do for your day-to-day job.

“I’ve really been impressed with this team,” said Tim Andrews, a Quality Assurance Engineer for Onshape at PTC. “Some Onshapers like Jason Gainor and Jake Ramsley have been doing this 24/7 and have been sleeping at the office. And I know that they’ve also been working on regular Onshape stuff, too.”

In just a few weeks, the volunteer teams had already pushed assembly down to 45 seconds – or 80 masks an hour per line.

Compared to a single use N95 respirator, the MasksOn face shield kit seals around the entire face including the eyes, nose and mouth. Additionally, they are reusable and can be sanitized, with only the filter needing to be replaced.
MasksOn says it costs around $50 to build and ship each mask. However, the kits are being provided to medical professionals for free thanks to donations from individuals and other companies.

Donations, along with requests for face shields from medical professionals, can be made at MasksOn.org.

For the volunteers, this is their opportunity to make a difference.

“We’re not doctors. We’re not in hospitals. We can’t do as much as they are, but at least we can support them because they’re the ones on the frontlines,” said Onshape’s Sauln.

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