In January, Ocean Reef started seeing a significant increase in demand for its gas masks. “Unfortunately, out of prior experience with Gulf Wars, 9/11, and Arab Spring, we knew that meant something bad either has happened or is bound to happen,” says Luca Gamberini, the brand’s marketing manager. Of course, “something bad” was Covid-19.
Gamberini got on a call with his father, Sergio, who is Ocean Reef’s president, to strategize. Clearly there would be a need for personal protective equipment, but producing gas masks to meet demand would be a “massive and unmanageable” approach, Luca says. “My dad threw out an idea based upon logic.” Ocean Reef, with headquarters in Genoa, Italy, and Vista, California, has been making PPE for 30 years and had adapted its gas masks for scuba diving and its scuba diving masks for snorkeling. The next step in the evolution was to transform a snorkeling mask into a simple, inexpensive emergency protective mask with the use of adapters and air filters. “Within minutes of the call, our engineers had put together a functional prototype,” Luca says. In February, the design was finalized, and on March 16, the brand filed a patent.
Patent or no, the company made its 3D-printing files free and downloadable for hospitals and nonprofits. But to achieve high-scale production and quality control on the adaptors, Ocean Reef invested in injection molding. While the brand donated 1,000 masks to hospitals in Italy, Luca says the company’s efforts to support its employees and retailers, while not headline grabbing, may ultimately make more of an impact.
At a time when many outdoor brands are furloughing workers and reducing hours—and scuba and snorkeling gear isn’t moving at retail—the company has retained 100% of its American employees at full pay. “We are also including our retail partners, small specialty dealers, as well as chains like West Marine and Dick’s Sporting Goods, in our processes so that they can directly help their local communities and receive sales income during these hard times,” says Jon Wilkins, Ocean Reef’s national sales director in the U.S.
Meanwhile in Boston, Dr. Sanjay Vakil, a senior product manager at Google, came across an email in late March that caught his eye. It was a request on a maker’s listserv asking if anyone had the skills or a 3D printer to build an adapter for a full-face snorkeling mask to work with an anesthesiology breathing circuit filter. Vakil, who has three degrees in aerospace from MIT, responded. That was just the kind of tinkering Vakil was good at. The effort snowballed quickly as experts in medicine, technology, and academia came together to transform an outdoor product into much-needed durable, reusable PPE to be donated to intensive care units and emergency room workers fighting the Covid-19 pandemic. The nonprofit effort, known as MasksOn.org, launched in late March, and within a month the group of some 50 volunteers had delivered 3,500 masks to 440 hospitals nationwide.
MasksOn relies on individual donors and a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds to buy up existing stocks of masks. “We bought around 10,000 Ocean Reef masks,” says Vakil, who serves as the nonprofit’s executive director. “And I basically cornered the market on Head masks.” Brands and retailers, despite struggling with closures due to the pandemic, sold their masks to the group at cost or wholesale. “Everyone was incredibly supportive,” says Vakil, who also secured masks from Seac and Wildhorn Outfitters.
Doctors have been an integral part of the effort—in both testing and fundraising. “A local doctor contacted us wanting to buy masks from our shop in Omaha [for MasksOn],” says Christine Hughey, CMO of Diventures, a scuba diving facility with retail outlets in the Midwest. Diventures hunted down existing inventory of the Head Sea Vu snorkeling mask across its shops and helped facilitate an order direct from the manufacturer, delivering approximately 2,350 masks at wholesale, forgoing any profit. “It was cool to tie what we’re passionate about with helping those in need,” says Hughey.
Researchers at Stanford and MIT helped test the masks and adaptors for seal, breathability, fogging, and durability. At first, the MasksOn group used 3D-printed adapters. But, using age-cycle testing, a polymer expert at MIT (who had volunteered to help) found that the surgical resin in the 3D adapters would eventually fail after months of use and autoclave sanitizing. Vakil eventually linked up with Minneapolis-based Protolabs, which was able to create an injection mold for the adapters in under a week. The nonprofit has raised $2 million of its $5 million goal in order to produce 100,000 assembled masks. “That line on the ‘flatten the curve’ infographic is horizontal,” says Vakil. “But we learned from Italy and China, as EMTs, doctors, and nurses get sick, that line starts to dip down. “We can’t afford to have our health-care workers fall sick.”
Following in the footsteps of Ocean Reef, Mares, a manufacturer of scuba diving gear based in Italy, started making adapters, too. He was inspired by two Italian engineers at Isinnova who had developed adaptors for full-face snorkeling masks from Decathlon for use as ventilators in patient therapy. Sergio Angelini, chief technology officer at Mares, began working on retrofitting the company’s snorkeling masks to be used with ventilators.
“We decided to pull our inventory, and we found a network of companies that were willing to provide us the parts through 3D printing,” says Angelini. Mares was able to deliver the masks swiftly at the height of the crisis in Italy with 3D printing. “People came together for the greater good without asking for anything in return,” he says. “They just wanted to contribute in some way during these dire times.” Ferrari even stepped up, producing thermoplastic respirator valves and fittings for the masks at its Maranello plant.
To date, the Mares group has donated 900 of its retrofitted masks to hospitals. The brand now has the capacity to scale up production of the adapters by utilizing injection molding. As the crisis in Italy begins to level off, Mares has turned its attention to bringing the mask to a broader market for use as PPE for ambulance drivers, dentists, and even consumers making runs to Costco. “It can filter your exhalation and inhalation from 99.9999% of bacteria and viruses,” says Angelini. “Everyone is a potential customer.”
While companies like Ocean Reef and Mares are looking at potential longer-term applications for masks with adaptors, MasksOn is laser focused on the now. “Our goal is to cover the window where the supply chain for fully regulated medical PPE is stretched too thin. Once it comes back, we’re going to shut it all down,” says Vakil. “Hopefully this will be my shortest employment cycle ever.”
Watch Ferrari make valves for the masks at their factory here.