The LAB: Innovating a Surgical Mask with Task Unification (May 2009)

Design the Future of Mobile Communications
April 21, 2009
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May 10, 2009

The LAB: Innovating a Surgical Mask with Task Unification (May 2009)


Crisis creates opportunity.  That certainly has been the case for surgical mask makers and retailers as people scramble to buy them to protect against the H1N1 swine flu virus.  Companies and governments are ordering masks by the case load.  The surgical mask has become the number four selling item in women’s apparel at, moving ahead of another strapped item – the bra.  The rush to protect against the virus extends beyond surgical masks as people seek any form of protection.  Soon we will be tracking the pandemic on our iPhones.

Surgical masks have been around since 1860.  Since then, lots of innovation has occurred.  One of my favorites is shown here – a clear mask so that doctors and nurses can see each others’ face to improve communications. The fashionable surgical mask idea has been around for a very long time, but it is back with a vengeance.

There is debate about the value of surgical masks in the operating room.  Experts question whether they protect people from viruses like swine flu.  At best, masks seem capable of short term protection from large particle droplets transmitted at close contact.  Masks prevent transmission both to and from the wearer.

Given the questionable efficacy of surgical masks, this would seem a ripe opportunity for PROBLEM-TO-SOLUTION innovation using a methods such as TRIZ and Goldfire.  For this LAB, I will use Systematic Inventive Thinking (SOLUTION-TO-PROBLEM innovation) to see if there are novel ideas to extend the value of the surgical mask and perhaps address some of the unmet needs as well.  For this exercise, I am using a 3M 8210 respirator version that is N95 rated.  We start by listing the components:

  1. outer layer (non-woven material)
  2. inner layer
  3. filter media (sandwiched in between the two layers)
  4. instructions and other printed information
  5. outer nosepiece (flexible coated aluminum that conforms to the nose)
  6. inner nosepiece (foam material to provide comfort)
  7. headband (elastic rubber straps)

Task Unification is the template that assigns an additional job to an existing resource (component).  We then work backwards from this hypothetical solution to see what benefits it provides or problems it solves.  Here is what I came up with:

1.  OUTER LAYER:  The mask indicates when it is time to replace or clean it, perhaps by changing color or appearance.  As the mask becomes more damp from breathing, it loses its protective power.  Other people, especially medical care givers, get an early warning signal when a patient wearing a mask is a higher risk.

2.  INNER LAYER:  The mask has a way to capture moisture and drainage for people who are sick.  The inner layer acts as a tissue that can be pulled away from the mask, discarded, and replaced.  A common problem with masks is they get uncomfortably warm on the face.  Perhaps the inner layer could provide some agent that evaporates to provide a cooling sensation.

3.  FILTER MEDIA:  The mask’s filter has bacteria-killing properties.  It sanitizes.  Perhaps it is coated with a drug (like a drug-eluting stent) to administer Tamiflu or other disease-fighting agents.  The filter could aid in breathing with an asthma agent or sinus-clearing vapor.

4.  INSTRUCTIONS:  The mask tells people whether the wearer is being protected or is helping to protect others (in other words, that the wearer is sick or not).

5.  OUTER NOSEPIECE:  The mask helps hold the person’s nostrils wider to promote better breathing (like the Breath Right nasal strip).  Alternatively, perhaps it pinches the nose shut to prevent drainage in certain severe situations.

6.  INNER NOSEPIECE:  The mask has a way to monitor the person’s body temperature by direct contact with the skin of the nose.  Perhaps it changes color or other property if a person has a temperature above a certain level (fever stage).  This could trigger other functions of the mask’s components such as releasing a drug like Tylenol to reduce the fever.

7.  HEADBAND:  The mask is situation dependent and it adjusts as needed.  On airplanes, the straps are earphones that also hold the mask comfortably in place. For people wearing glasses or an eye shield, the straps assist in holding them up.  The straps integrate with other clothing like hats or hoods.

Some would argue that it doesn’t make sense to innovate commodity products like surgical masks.  I don’t agree.  Companies create growth through innovation…a much better alternative than waiting for the next crisis.