As manufacturers shift to producing goods that are essential for the health and safety of Australians, they are discovering how their industries are set to change.
When tens of Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel make a special trip to your manufacturing plant to analyse and boost your capabilities, it fast becomes apparent that your business is a player in a very important game.
This was the experience of Shepparton-based Med-Con, Australia’s only medical mask manufacturer. Med-Con produced two million masks annually at the time, or around five per cent of the national market. The rest came from cheaper suppliers in Asia.
However, a secure response to the COVID-19 threat meant Australia would require its own supply, one that would not ebb and flow with the vagaries of international relations.
Med-Con would need to boost its production capacity to 50 million annually — but that was easier said than done.
Only two of the three mask-production machines at Med-Con were operational. All were old and all would need to be running efficiently, 24 hours per day, to reach the required output.
“This equipment was built in the 1980s by local engineer Joe Carmody,” said Earle Roberts, mechanical engineer and CEO of Foodmach, the company commissioned by the Australian Government to modernise the machines.
“The original designs were lost, so the intent of the ADF was to disassemble the machine not in operation and reverse engineer. They had a dozen engineers on site to disassemble and 3D-model that third machine.
“On a Monday afternoon we put forward a proposal as to how we’d attack the project. That Friday we got the go-ahead. We worked through Saturday, Saturday night and Sunday doing a handover with the ADF. On the Monday we started cutting steel.”
The coronavirus has revealed opportunities for improvement, and those improvements are being made at pace.
Breathing new life into the Med-Con machines, Roberts said, would typically take at least five to six months. He and his team had just eight weeks.
Similarly, under the leadership of Dr Peter Meikle, mechanical engineer and CEO of Grey Innovation, a group of Australian businesses has formed to produce ventilators in record time.
“Our business model is based on the strategic commercialisation of technologies in areas including environmental, homeland security and medical devices,” Meikle said. “This is familiar territory for us, but not in such a compressed timeframe.
“State and Federal governments in Australia were being bombarded with offers of help, all well-meaning. These came from everyone from significant corporate entities to the enthusiastic amateur. We approached the ventilator problem informed by our panel of clinicians and knew collaboration would be the key to success.”
The consortium, seeded with $500,000 from the Victorian Government and matching funds from the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre, subsequently received $31.1 million from the Australian Government. It includes businesses such as Bosch, ANCA, Braemac, Hosico, Marand, Knee 360 and many more. Their goal is to produce up to 4000 ventilators.
“Engineering is central to success,” Meikle said. “The importance of adhering to process is something engineers naturally recognise. When you can prove you are doing things that are meaningful and measurable, it means you cut through when you’re making an approach to government — or anybody else.”
When create spoke to Roberts, his Foodmach team was on day 32 of their reset of the Med-Con factory.
Their challenge began on day one, when, during the handover, they received 3D models from the ADF team. The models, although very well produced, did not always show the internals of the mask-production machine’s parts, nor allow for a deep understanding of critical dimensions such as plus or minus tolerance.
“Excluding fasteners and minor items, there are 867 unique part numbers,” Roberts said. “Across the three machines, there are 5805 parts we have to manufacture or procure. In a lot of cases we have to find materials, because there are section sizes we don’t use.
“We moved our machine shop to 24/7 production to get the majority of the machine components ready. We partnered with some regional machine shops to give them some of the overflow. Melbourne’s Marand also completed some of the bigger assemblies.
“We’ve designed a completely new control system and replaced a lot of the old, mechanically linked drives with servo motors. We’ve put current-standard safety systems in, including laser zone scanners so staff can operate the machines safely and still gain access to all of the parts.”
It’s this modernisation, and the efficiencies and agilities that come with it, that Australian manufacturers must consider if they are to truly prepare for similar pivots in the future, Roberts said.
Meikle agreed, and said engineers would be central to the Australian manufacturing solution and its ongoing abilities around change.
“Three things have come out of this,” Meikle said. “One is the collegiate and collaborative nature of the solutions, which has been so gratifying. Another is the incredibly impressive nimbleness of our State and Federal Governments.”
The third is the central role of engineers as problem solvers, he said.
“Technology is not the solution; engineering is. Going to the moon, for example, was an engineering problem first and foremost. The best way to achieve a powerful result in the shortest possible time is to bring together a group of people who know the nuts and bolts better than anybody, and that’s engineers. I think we will see a significant revaluing of the asset class of engineering that has been shown to be fundamental to adaptation and value creation.”
Pivot on point
The manufacturing pivot demonstrated by companies like Med-Con, often towards producing some form of personal protective equipment, has become a familiar story over recent months, both in Australia and elsewhere.
Local distilleries switched from gin and rum to hand sanitiser. Automotive engineers turned to producing ventilators. Many 3D-printing groups came together to create devices and masks.
Even boutique mountain bike makers got in on the act, with Yeti Cycles, based in Golden, Colorado, retooling their factory to produce protective face shields.
In Australia, this pivot has become a matter of national security. With much of our manufacturing talent and capability offshored over the past decade, policymakers, thought leaders and think tanks have realised that some of that capability must return.
“Open trading has been a core part of our prosperity over centuries,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Parliament recently. “But, equally, we need to look carefully at our domestic economic sovereignty.”