Cummins repurposing engine filtration material to make N95 masks

Cummins N95 mask material

Cummins Inc. (NYSE: CMI) is leveraging the same material it uses for air, fuel and lubrication filtration in diesel engines as feedstock for much-needed N95 respirator masks worn by healthcare workers treating coronavirus patients.  

“Our technical leadership knew it was capable and when we started seeing shortages we said “‘Wow, maybe this is an opportunity for us to fill a void,’” Amy Davis, vice president of Cummins Filtration, told FreightWaves. 

An N95 designation means the respirator can block at least 95% of particles from entering the wearer’s nose and mouth. 

Cummins Filtration Inc., based in Nashville, Tennessee, could provide enough NanoNet Media to create several millions masks a month. The media comes from South Korea and is manufactured for global customers at plants in Cookeville, Tennessee, and Neillsville, Wisconsin, as well as Mexico and Australia.

Cummins has excess capacity of filter material it uses in diesel engines that it is repurposing for use in N95 respirator masks. (Photo: Cummins)

“This got started conceptually for us back in February when the crisis first started happening and folks started shipping masks from India into China,” Davis said. “The kind of media we’ve been using in fuel systems over the past couple of years got more and more finely turned and so it is more suitable for medical and different kinds of fields.”

Cummins Filtration sells more than 8,300 products. It is one of six businesses that make up Cummins’ components division, which was responsible for 24% of the company’s $23.6 billion revenue in 2019.

Columbus, Indiana-based Cummins is best known for designing, manufacturing, selling and servicing diesel and alternative-fuel engines for heavy-, medium- and light-duty truck manufacturers, all of whom have suspended production because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

How it works

The company’s filtration division had been looking for other businesses that could use the filtration material before the coronavirus crisis, Davis said. With the shuttering of its engine production until May 4, Cummins has additional material available 

Cummins’ NanoNet and NanoForce Media typically integrate Cummins’ synthetic fibers with Hybrid Membrane Technology(HMT) under license from DuPont de Nemours, Inc. (NYSE: DD). They are used in heavy-duty diesel engine filtration products to prevent long-term engine wear.

DuPont’s HMT uses sub-micron fibers in a proprietary spinning process that exceeds the limits of traditional semi-porous or non-woven membranes for air and liquid filtration. The end result is a “membrane-like” sheet structure that balances breathability and high filtration of particulates.

Here is how the media combines to make the filter material that Cummins Inc. uses for truck engine filters that also can be used in N95 masks worn by health care workers treating coronavirus patients. (Image: Cummins)

Educational partnership

Cummins worked with the Center for Filtration Research at the University of Minnesota, with which it has an education partnership, to make mask prototypes in March. 

“The first thing we recognized is that not all filtration materials are created equal and that the Cummins’ material is an excellent alternative,” said Jakub Tolar, University of Minnesota Campus Health Officer and medical school dean. 

“We now believe we have several viable mask options, including both a disposable and reusable option,” Tolar said. “These designs show real promise in keeping our healthcare workers safe should standard medical supplies of N95 masks no longer be available.”

Cummins’ media needs approval from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), but Davis said Cummins is working with healthcare officials to make that happen quickly.

Getting to Market

With most Cummins Filtration employees unable to travel because of shelter-in-place orders, Davis said they are volunteering to help a new crop of companies that want to make personal protective equipment (PPE) get samples of the masks. 

“Our first thought was let’s take our excess capacity and feed it to manufacturers who are in need,” Davis said. “Now our [traditional] demand is falling off so we have even more capacity.”

Shifting the excess capacity to mask makers could lead to several million masks being made monthly, she said.

As for growing business with the material, Davis suggested that comes later.

“I don’t know that we have a detailed commercial strategy for it at this point,” she said. “I think there are other applications we’re looking at. All of those kind of fit where there’s a parallel in our manufacturing or technology that can translate into this new market.”