Perfect fit. Protection. Comfort. This face mask has it all, thanks to 3D technology
August 2020. As devastating wildfires are blazing across the western United States amid the coronavirus pandemic, Kevin Ngo, an accomplished product leader in Silicon Valley is only weeks away from achieving the design of a product that matters more to him than anything else he has ever brought to market.
Two years in development, Kevin’s unique creation is there to protect not just his own three kids, but any other elementary-age kids, from both viruses and air pollution. And fast and accurate 3D scanning is one of the pillars upholding Kevin’s most important personal project to date, the Flo Mask.
The Flo Mask is a next-gen reusable, sub-micron filtration respirator mask for children. Its strength lies in its unique filter and tailor-made gasket, engineered by world-class product designers to perfectly fit children from 4 to 12 years of age. Made in the USA, these filters trap airborne particles down to 0.1 micron. Independent tests by Nelson Labs have shown that Flo Mask filters block over 99.8% of viruses, exceeding FDA (the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) breathability standards by 600%.
Building on the technology developed while designing the best respirator mask for children, Kevin is now creating one for adults. He has entered the Mask Innovation Challenge: Building Tomorrow’s Mask competition launched by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).
This challenge seeks to develop innovative and effective designs for mass-producible, low-cost-per-use devices to be worn by the general public in order to provide protection from respiratory disease pathogens. Surpassing more than 1,400 other contestants, Kevin’s Air Flo Labs, LLC has reached the finals and continues to compete for a hefty cash prize. Up to five winners, to be announced later this year, will split a total purse of $400,000.
The Flo Mask’s silicone gasket provides physical comfort while its unique filter, as verified by Nelson Labs, surpasses FDA breathability standards by 600%.
The need for an ultimate respirator mask arose from a lack of such a product being available for children. “For adults, we have excellent, highly protective N95 masks, but there simply weren’t any options for kids at the time,” Kevin said. “The irony here is the ones who are most vulnerable are the ones without an effective solution.” Struggling to find a mask that could effectively protect his children, Kevin set out to invent one.
The idea for the Flo Mask began to take shape in the fall of 2018, during the deadliest wildfire season on record in California. “The news reported the San Francisco Bay Area had the worst air quality in the world,” Kevin recalled. Yet at the same time, his children’s school remained open, causing the crisis to become deeply personal, once he realized their health was affected.
“They returned home from school feeling nauseous, having really bad headaches. The school even emailed us not to have our kids wear N95 masks because they won’t fit properly, resulting in kids breathing in toxic air. As a parent, all I wanted was to protect them from the smoke,” Kevin said. “I grew up here, and I’m noticing each year the wildfires are becoming more frequent and lasting longer.”
Kevin Ngo, the Silicon Valley dad who created Flo Mask to protect his children from air pollution and viruses.
Kevin did exhaustive research on available masks for children, but none of the dozens of masks he purchased could meet his standards. “I bought all types of kids’ masks from around the world. Every one we evaluated either had a poor fit, was uncomfortable, or had very questionable effectiveness. Many of the masks were fabric masks, which we know don’t do anything in terms of filtering PM2.5 particles,” he said.
PM2.5 are tiny (2.5 microns or less in width) particles in the air that can travel deeply into the respiratory tract, reaching the lungs and affecting lung function. “My guess is that no one wants to invest in making a proper mask for kids because they don’t think it’s a big enough market, but for me, it’s been a personal mission,” Kevin added.
Brainstorming various Flo Mask design concepts.
From his previous experience in creating AR (augmented reality) headsets, Kevin knew exactly where to start with his new project – 3D scanning. “In AR, it’s important to identify the location of a user’s IPD [inter-pupillary distance, the distance between the centers of the pupils of the eyes] to align with our system optics, while keeping the headset from rubbing against their ears, and the only way to do that is through 3D scanning,” he said.
The role of 3D scanning
As Kevin discovered, 3D scanning for designing AR headsets did not require submillimeter levels of precision or resolution. In his words, he just needed to understand where the eyes were relative to the ears. The low-cost scanner Kevin was using at the time was sufficient for this, but the scanning process itself was lacking: the person being scanned needed to remain completely still for an entire minute. Using this device for scanning children was totally out of the question, since expecting a 5-year-old to sit still for a full minute is simply impossible.
The iPhone’s 3D depth camera, XYZprinting scanners, 3D sensors, or any other of the dozen solutions that Kevin tried out didn’t measure up: either the quality or the speed or both weren’t there, and for Kevin’s project, every half a millimeter was crucial. “I did quite a bit of research until I discovered Indicate Technologies had a device from Artec 3D, so I called them on my day off and they said, come down and you can check it out,” Kevin said.
Indicate Technologies Inc. is an Artec 3D Gold Certified Partner with offices in California and Washington State. With Indicate’s California office close to Kevin’s home, it was easy for him to meet with the company’s 3D Product Expert, Márcio Adamy, to share his story and review all options on the table. As Kevin recounted his project’s challenges and requirements for a 3D scanner, it boiled down to the need for high speed, high resolution, and high accuracy. Márcio, also the parent of a young child, knew just what to recommend: Artec Eva.
Artec Eva, a portable structured-light 3D scanner (accuracy: up to 0.1 mm, resolution: up to 0.2 mm).
“We proved that Artec Eva will work on the kids’ face scan, and we taught Kevin how to use the scanner and software,” said Márcio. “Also, we taught him some tips and tricks on how to do this as fast as possible.” A portable 3D scanner, Artec Eva uses white structured light, which is 100% safe for people, to scan medium-sized to large objects quickly, with up to 0.1 mm of accuracy and up to 0.2 mm resolution (in HD Mode).
Since Kevin needed the scanner only for this project, he negotiated renting an Artec Eva on weekends. “They decided they’d rent me their demo unit, but only after I completed two hours of training with them,” Kevin said. “Márcio was a great instructor, so the training only took an hour for me to learn how to use the scanner.”
Kevin scanning his son with Artec Eva.
In the two weekends that followed, Kevin drove up and down the San Francisco Bay Area, to quote him, “scanning every kid aged 5 to 11 I knew.” It was particularly important to collect a spectrum of 3D data to account for the diversity of nose bridge sizes, so children of various ethnicities (African-American, Asian, Caucasian, and Hispanic) were scanned.
Each head scan took less than 20 seconds to complete and a mere 30 seconds of post-scan clean-up. Before pressing Eva’s start button, Kevin would ask each child to close their eyes and tilt their head back. He’d start scanning from one ear and proceed across to the other, also making sure to capture underneath the child’s chin and the top of their head. “Once they saw their face in 3D, they were amazed,” Kevin said.
Kevin’s very first 3D scan attempt of his son, using Artec Eva, with all physical features faithfully reconstructed.
“The truth is, I don’t think we could’ve done this project without Eva,” Kevin added. “The kids wouldn’t have sat still long enough for us to scan. Or the accuracy would’ve been so far off that we would’ve spent a lot longer during our refinement period of prototyping. This would’ve meant more expenses to iterate on prototyping and obviously delay our time to market. And even still, I wouldn’t have been confident in the accuracy of our fit.”
Kevin added that he found Artec Eva surprisingly easy to use and Artec Studio software very intuitive to learn. Despite his concerns, he didn’t have to buy a Windows laptop to run Artec Studio. His 2015 MacBook Pro with Boot Camp was sufficient for smooth scan processing.
Hardware compatibility was not the only advantage of Artec Studio. “At one point, we had a line of over a dozen kids at my kids’ school, and the beauty of the [Artec Studio] software is that I could first scan them, and then do the scan processing after,” he said. “When it came to cleaning up the scans, all I had to do was cut out the artifacts behind their head. It was really easy to get rid of all of the noise, I mean literally, like 10 seconds per scan, and then run the process to turn it into a solid model.”
Working out the perfect gasket design.
After processing in Artec Studio, each head scan was sent over to Pro Engineer CAD software. “We aligned each scan by the tip of the lips, and from there, found the optimal one-size-fits-all shape. The scans helped us devise a shape that was 90% there. We then did a half dozen rounds of 3D printing and test fitting on kids, making small adjustments each time and progressively getting higher-resolution prototypes made,” Kevin said.
Refining the design
When Kevin says, “we” or “us,” he refers, besides himself, to three friends of his, all employed at large Silicon Valley companies and all having impressive backgrounds in consumer product design.
“Finally, we did a PolyJet print when it felt like our design was more refined,” Kevin said. “From there, we had a soft tool mold made of the silicone gasket so that we could get near-production-level quality but in a very rapid time period.”
Testing out that design was crucial for validating the durability of the mask. Once everything was locked down, the team went into production tooling. At the co-molding stage, liquid silicone rubber was bonded to polycarbonate parts to create a complete seal, ensuring airflow can pass only through the filter opening.
As a result, the Flo Mask’s soft gasket perfectly contours to a child’s face while keeping the mask from touching their lips. The mask’s adjustable straps were designed to stay clear of the ears, and a rubber backing was added on the top strap to prevent it from slipping off the head.
The Flo Mask team dialed in the tailored fit of the gasket after several rounds of CAD design, 3D printing, and testing.
The breakthrough filter
“I almost canceled the whole project: even after all this work, we had a really hard time finding a breathable filter because kids’ lungs are relatively weak compared to adults,” Kevin said.
Normally, a filter consists of fibers woven together very tightly to prevent particles from passing through. Higher protection comes at the cost of reduced breathability. “It didn’t seem like there was any filter in the world that would be breathable enough, but I finally found a medical company here in the U.S. that makes ventilator filters,” Kevin said.
Ventilator filters made of nonwoven fabric called Spunbond proved remarkably efficient at blocking out viruses while maintaining a high volume of airflow. “The manufacturing process of this is very different,” Kevin explained. “They’re not weaving the fibers, they’re actually poking holes into it. And that process creates an electrostatic charge, which is very efficient at attracting harmful particulates and viruses.”
The Flo Mask’s disposable filters can last up to eight hours of continuous use. “In a smoke-filled environment, the filter will load more quickly, so you’ll want to replace it sooner,” Kevin explained. “If they’re just wearing the mask to the grocery store, then the filter will last multiple days. The rest of the mask… they can wash it with water and soap, and it dries within an hour.”
Washing the Flo Mask is really easy.
“I have yet to find a kid that our shape doesn’t fit perfectly,” Kevin said. “When we did the scans, we only scanned ages 5 to 11, and the shape we created was so accurate that we can actually fit kids ages 4 to 12, so this exceeded all expectations.”
From the start, Kevin shared his project with his children’s pediatrician. Dr. James Cisco, co-founder of Burgess Pediatrics in Menlo Park, California, gave the Flo Mask his endorsement after reviewing all the test data. He even measured Kevin’s 4-year-old daughter’s blood oxygen level while she was wearing her Flo Mask. Dr. Cisco was convinced when it read 100%. In his words, “The Flo Mask is raising the standard for kids’ masks. The unique silicone gasket, filtration efficiency, and ability to be washed is unlike anything I’ve seen.”
Flo Mask filters are effective down to 0.1 micron, as tested and verified by Nelson Labs, blocking over 99.8% of viruses.
Here’s how Patrick, a 5th grader, described his experience with his Flo Mask on a flight from San Francisco to Chicago: “Despite squishing my face a bit, it was relatively comfortable, and after a short while, I couldn’t really feel it anymore. I found out that the Flo Mask’s filtered air was much cleaner than your average disposable 3-ply mask’s air.”
Patrick’s dad added, “This type of mask is certainly better for kids who wear glasses. Much fewer problems with condensation on the glasses when breathing through the mask.”
Two other schoolkids, Ryder (5) and Preston (10), also enjoy wearing their Flo Masks. “It provides a good seal around the lower part of their face, and the rigidity ensures open space in front of their mouths as they breathe,” their mother said. “Their classmates and teachers notice when Ryder and Preston wear them. It is definitely a standout in terms of style.”
All the children who had their faces 3D scanned were the first in the world to receive their very own Flo Mask. “They helped me develop my product. The least I could do for them is give them a mask, and they’re beyond happy because they need it now more than ever,” Kevin said. “Best of all, they love the design of it!”
Flo Masks now available
After two years and dozens of prototypes later, the Flo Mask officially launched in December 2020. To date, there are over two thousand children across the USA wearing Flo Masks.
A Flo Mask with five packs of disposable filters.
The Flo Mask is available for sale on their website at flomask.com and on Amazon.com. On Amazon.com, the Flo Mask currently has a 4.5 star average customer rating, with many parents sharing about their children’s love for the mask.
“With the current pandemic, masks are needed now more than ever,” Kevin said. “As the world begins to re-open, with kids returning to school or traveling again, people may notice a very iconic-looking mask. I’ve yet to see a solution that has nailed the fit as we have, which is a huge testament to how amazing the Artec 3D equipment is. Creating the Flo Mask would not be possible if it weren’t for the Artec Eva.”
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