The athletic wear company Under Armour has unveiled an innovative new surgical mask that’s made of a single piece of fabric and doesn’t require any sewing. That means it can be produced rapidly in large quantities to meet the needs of medical workers on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis. Under Armour estimates it can manufacture 100,000 of these masks a week.
There is a global shortage of protective gear for healthcare workers. This problem is likely to be aggravated if the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention decides to reverse its previous stance and encourage the general population to wear masks in public. Hospitals have been putting out calls for masks, gowns, and other gear, and many apparel brands, including Rothy’s, American Giant, and Christian Siriano, have quickly shifted their production in response. Under Armour counts among them.
Executives at Under Armour had heard from local hospitals about a shortage of protective gear, so the company started thinking about how it could use its resources to help. In a week, Under Armour turned the innovation lab in its Baltimore headquarters—known as the UA Lighthouse—into a factory that makes disposable surgical masks, face shields, and even fanny packs.
Randy Harward, Under Armour’s senior vice president of advanced material and manufacturing innovation, was tasked with the company’s efforts to produce face masks. He issued a challenge to a team of 50 designers at the company: They had to come up with a mask that could be produced quickly and at scale. After a process of rapid prototyping and iteration, they settled on a one-piece mask that does not require any sewing. While mask designs vary, the typical mask involves several pieces of fabric that must be sewn together. “This design allows us to share masks with healthcare facilities quicker than we could if we had to sew them,” Harward says, in an email.
The masks are made from a breathable, moisture-resistant fabric, which is similar to the material used for traditional surgical masks. (One study found that surgical masks only let in 44% of particles in the air.) Harward explains that the masks have two primary purposes. They make it harder for the wearer to touch their face, which reduces the risk of getting infected themselves. And given that many people don’t even realize they have the virus because they have no symptoms, the masks could reduce the spread of the virus in hospital settings. “Our masks act as a first level of defense, reducing virus -laden moisture and droplet spread,” Harward explains.