Unexpectedly Intriguing!
March 27, 2020

If you have to work in an environment where you might be exposed to airborne respiratory hazards, a Powered Air Purifying Respirator (PAPR) is a device that can offer wearable protection for your head and face while allowing you breathe air that has been filtered to remove contaminants. In today's world, contaminants may include anything from dust particles, chemicals, and potentially virus-carrying fluid droplets.

It's the kind of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) that has fallen into very short supply thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, where 3M (NYSE: MMM) has found its manufacturing facilities are unable to keep up with the demand for PAPR devices from health care workers.

That's a problem that a unique partnership between 3M and Ford Motor Company(NYSE: F) has been set up to solve. Ford, which has been reeling for months from a global recession in the automotive industry, has both production capacity and design engineering talent to spare at a time when 3M needs more of those capabilities than it has on its own.

But that's not all the problems 3M has. It's own supply chains are unable to increase their output to make more of the PAPR device's components, which limit its ability to increase its production to meet a surging demand for the protective equipment. Because of that limitation, 3M is not able to turn to an outside production house with greater available capacity, like Ford in this case, give them the parts and instructions for fabrication, and let them crank them out in the numbers needed.

And that's where Ford's available design engineering talent matters, because they've worked out how to make an effective version of 3M's PAPR using parts from Ford's truck production, combining 3M's HEPA cabin air filters with Ford's F-150 truck seat blowers. Here is a design sketch of Ford's version of a 3M PAPR air filtration components, which looks like it throws in a battery pack from a hand power tool for good measure.

Ford: Filtration System Design

By using this inventive approach and tapping into its own established supply chains and production facilities that can multiply 3M's regular production 10-fold, Ford can help 3M in providing these devices much more quickly to the people who wouldn't otherwise be able to acquire a regular PAPR device if 3M and Ford hadn't formed their partnership to solve 3M's supply challenges.

That's not the only kind of rapid innovation that's now occurring to solve other problems related to the coronavirus pandemic, such as critical shortages of life-saving equipment. There are many other stories about creative new inventions, including mechanical ventilators (including an open-source $100 design from MIT, and check out what Dyson's engineers did in just 10 days), 3-D printed valves used in assisted breathing devices, and a whole array of COVID-19 test kits, among other new inventions that have gone from concept to mass market products in just the last few months.

Update: This is cool - an Italian 3D printing house is converting snorkeling masks for use in ventilators.

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