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How Xerox Turned Printer Filters into Face Masks

When the call went out at Xerox to think about new ways to use materials on hand to help the coronavirus humanitarian effort, Mark Adiletta, long-time Xerox engineering manager, had a crazy thought: What if we use printer filters to make medical-grade face masks?

“For the iGen® 5 Press printer, we had developed a filter that has an N95 rating,” explains Adiletta, who is based in Webster and now retired, serving as a contract special-project engineering manager. “I thought we could take that filter and, with some help, put it into fabric and make a surgical mask on steroids.”

The creative, resourceful idea showed immediate promise. With the support of Abu Islam, the head of the Advanced Technology Group who is leading the task force to implement these community-based ideas, Adiletta rigged up a cloth-based prototype. It took the standard surgical mask and gave it N95-like performance without classifying it as such. (While the iGen 5 Press printer filter has the same properties as an N95 facemask, it can’t be form-fitted into the face-hugging shape of an FDA-approved N95 mask.)

Adiletta then connected with Mary Fromm, vice president of Global Manufacturing, to push the manufacturing process forward. “Every human being in the country seems to have the same focus, this spirit of collaboration to problem solve and get things done,” says Fromm. “That sense of urgency helped with the collaboration.” Xerox’s all-hands-on-deck effort included participation from 30 people across the engineering, procurement, legal, finance, manufacturing, health and safety, environment, and management teams. Even people outside the company pitched in: A member of Fromm’s church, who recently lost someone likely to COVID-19, had a background in textile manufacturing and shared with Adiletta the unique aspects of sourcing and manufacturing the masks.

When he wasn’t in the plant, Adiletta went in search of a tailor in Rochester to professionally stitch the filter into the cloth mask. He visited a total of six tailors to find one that was open and available. “They would say they could finish it in two days,” says Adiletta. “I said we needed the masks in two hours.” After one tailor turned it around for him in that timeframe, Adiletta went back to designing the prototype at the Xerox lab, while also sending prototypes to Rochester Regional Health—the recipients of the final masks—to review.

The entire process, from idea to manufacturing the facemasks, took two weeks. It wouldn’t have happened without the help of Hickey Freeman, the menswear company with roots in Rochester. Both Xerox and Hickey Freeman employees are part of the Workers United Union whose leaders Gary Bonnadonna Jr. and Ross Clark made the connection between the two companies to enable the sewing of the initial order of 10,000 masks.

These masks have three layers: the first (against the face) is cotton, the middle layer is N95 filter material, and the third (outside) is cotton. They are held together by four corner ties and each sport a metal nose strip. In total, 15 Hickey Freeman employees hand-sewed the 10,000 masks in three days—each sewer averaged finishing one every three minutes. “We want to contribute back to the community we live in,” says John Martynec, Hickey Freeman executive vice president of manufacturing and operations. “In this time of need, we need to come together.”

On April 9, the masks were loaded up into a truck and driven over to employees across Rochester Regional Health. The health system with multiple area hospitals has a critical need for facemasks for its 20,000 employees. To start, employees who are not directly involved in patient-to-patient bedside care, such as transporters, secretaries, and environmental care employees, will use the masks.

“Once we get these made, the plan is to do some testing at Rochester Institute of Technology that will look for fluid resistance and flammability testing,” says Dr. Ralph Pennino, the senior vice president of the Specialty Medical and Surgery Group and system chair of surgery at Rochester General Hospital. “The hope is we can use them in place of, or to supplement, our supply of surgical masks.

While there is currently no laundered process for personal protective equipment, Xerox, Hickey Freeman, and Rochester Regional Health are exploring a sterilization process that would allow the masks to be reused multiple times.

More work is still to be done, but so far the crazy idea is paying off, both in terms of its ability to make a difference in the community and what it has taught the Xerox employees about their own way of working. “We can move and innovate faster,” says Adiletta. “It’s a great lesson to learn.”

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