UB, CannonDesign work to improve DIY fabric mask production

Photos courtesy of CannonDesign and University at Buffalo

by David J. Hill

Published June 18, 2020

As the novel coronavirus spread across the globe, so too did a variety of do-it-yourself face coverings. However, there can be some hidden dangers with DIY personal protective equipment.

A UB partnership with local industry has engineered a DIY fabric mask that is not only a potentially high-performing alternative to industrial solutions like the N95 mask, but is affordable and scalable. Called MadeToAid, the fabrication and distribution effort is helping to close the PPE need gap, as well as the product quality gap, by bringing together area designers, manufacturers, UB faculty and the DIY community.

The cotton masks are assembled from a “pattern-less pattern” that allows sewists to fold material “like origami” without printing out the design first. The elastics are attached to an adjustable clip on each side to help improve the fit and streamline production.

UB’s role has included research on rapid usability testing and application of existing scholarship on effective filtration fabrics. Researchers in the School of Architecture and Planning’s Fabrication Workshop assisted in the design and fabrication of the clip, creating a laser-cut prototype that takes only seconds to produce, compared to two hours for an initial 3D-printed model.

Korydon Smith, professor and chair of architecture in the School of Architecture and Planning and co-director of UB’s Community for Global Health Equity, has been leading the university effort.

You conducted some research on rapid usability testing. What did your review uncover, and how does it relate to PPE production?

Korydon Smith, professor and chair of architecture, is leading the effort for UB: "Our collaboration uniquely "stitches" together textile artists and crafspeople, university scientists and fabrication experts, and local manufacturers like Rigidized Metals."

Reusable clips for the masks, designed by the fabrication team in the School of Architecture and Planning.

The need for protective equipment in hospitals is well noted. Yet the demand is much bigger ─ extending to nursing homes, VA hospitals, small clinics, first-responders and the general public. Fabric masks, if well-researched and well-designed, provide an affordable option. Our collaboration uniquely “stitches” together textile artists and craftspeople, university scientists and fabrication experts, and local manufacturers like Rigidized Metals. One of our alums, Michael Tunkey, an architect at CannonDesign with expertise in health care facilities, has truly been a community organizer, building a coalition of sewers and a means of getting masks to health providers who need them most. As well, the fabrication team in the School of Architecture and Planning ─ Lindsay Romano, Daniel Vrana and Randy Fernando ─ really advanced the design of reusable clips for the masks. Equally exciting, we’re actively seeking funding, through grants and the guidance of local entrepreneurs like Frits Abell. The tandem goals are to meet the need for protective equipment, while expanding employment opportunities for underserved communities in Buffalo, exemplified in the work of Stitch Buffalo.

Making a better mask

UB architecture alumnus Mike Tunkey (BPS ’00), a principal of CannonDesign, has played a lead role in mobilizing the MadetoAid project by linking a network of partners in industry, academia and the community. Inspired by his experience designing healthcare facilities, Tunkey conceived the idea earlier this spring. Read more

How is UB positioned to address this problem of creating high-quality masks quickly?

Many, such as paper towel masks, provide little to no protective quality and may, in fact, give a false sense of security, leading people to take risks that further expose them to infection. Likewise, poorly fitting masks can lead the wearer to constantly adjust them, meaning that their hands are coming into contact with their faces more frequently. Even cotton masks, though recommended by the CDC and others, provide only minimal protection.

Researchers in materials science and biomedical engineering, Drs. Prathima Nalam and Anirban Dutta, respectively, have uncovered techniques for using common fabrics and other readily available products to improve filtration effectiveness ─ approaching the N95 in some cases. An example is using two layers of nylon, inserted in cotton masks, and the science of “tribology,” or static electricity, to capture microscopic particulates and more than double the performance of the cotton mask.

How is MadeToAid increasing, and speeding up, production of masks?

The arts are an important sector of the economy, but not often seen as a critical element of emergency management. This project, however, leverages the creativity of the textile arts, architecture, product design and materials science to address urgent needs in fighting the coronavirus, while providing innovative employment opportunities for underserved populations. The goal is to advance the artistic and protective design of fabric masks, thereby providing a market advantage to local businesses. With support for workforce training, the goal is to scale up production and expand distribution.

How many masks has this effort delivered thus far? What are the key production goals?

To date, MadeToAid has produced and delivered almost 2,200 masks, valued at around $24,000, to three local community service organizations and to Veterans Health Administration hospitals in Buffalo and New Jersey.

Donations and profits from mask orders go to Stitch Buffalo, helping fund the incomes of refugee sewists re-settled in Buffalo from around the world. Stitch artisans hold weekly sewing drives to make the masks, as well as their own creations.

Who are UB’s key partners in this initiative?

  • CannonDesign.
  • MaterialsIn, a funding startup collaborating with materials science researchers in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
  • Stitch Buffalo, an organization that creates opportunities for cross-cultural community experiences and economic empowerment for resettled refugee women in Buffalo.
  • Fisher Price.
  • Arc Building Partners.
  • Rigidized Metals.
  • Abasco Inc.
  • A large network of individual, volunteer sewers.