Innovation Breathes Easy

Surgical masks

How do you go from particles in the air to cleaner breathing for more people worldwide?

Whether you work in an environment surrounded by sweeping, grinding and sawing, or you spend the weekend mowing your lawn and kicking up dust, you know it’s important to breathe safe, clean air. And yet, many people around the world use only ineffective handkerchiefs or gauze masks to protect themselves from particles floating in the air.

Enter the 3M™ VFlex™ Particulate Respirator, the latest spark of innovation born of 3M’s legacy of respirator expertise. For the developers, the challenge loomed large: to create a disposable respirator at an entry-level price that doesn’t sacrifice quality or comfort, making cleaner air - and 3M innovation - accessible to more people around the globe.

Only at 3M could innovation and affordability collide in such a novel way. A diverse global team of product developers, designers, technical service professionals, engineers and marketers collaborated to attack the challenge from many angles, building on foundational 3M technology: Non-wovens. Various fibres derived from this technology filter the air in many 3M products, including surgical masks and furnace filters, and are also found in applications as diverse as Scotch-Brite™ dish scrubbing pads and Thinsulate™ insulation for clothing.

Innovation is often evolutionary and, in this case, the team created hundreds of different designs as the inventive process led them from one idea to another. They also gathered feedback on the design from customers around the world, which pointed to a big challenge: the users didn’t want these flat-fold respirators to touch their lips when they breathed or talked. To address the problem, the 3M team tapped into the broader 3M technical community and created a new testing mechanism using a mannequin with special sensors to simulate a person breathing. The upshot: unique design and easy breathing. The ground-breaking new design features innovative pleats and embossed patterns that help keep the respirator away from the wearer’s lips. The pleats help make breathing easier and flex with mouth movement for easier talking.

In addition, the pursuit of affordable innovation yielded another important benefit: sustainability. The drive to reduce waste resulted in a design that utilises almost 95% of the raw materials, including the use of potential trim waste as tabs that add to user convenience.

How is it possible to achieve both affordability and new breakthroughs in performance? 3M innovators would tell you to breathe easily, as we endlessly pursue new solutions to make more lives better. Now, that’s a breath of fresh air.