• Sergeant Steven Davidson and Mr Bob Neighbour repair a medical mask manufacturing machine so it can return to service as quickly as possible. (Defence)
    Sergeant Steven Davidson and Mr Bob Neighbour repair a medical mask manufacturing machine so it can return to service as quickly as possible. (Defence)

Government has long championed the vital contribution to Australia from Defence Industry. Much of the focus has been on Prime Contractors and multibillion-dollar programs.

But in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Government is making innovative arrangements with smaller and more agile companies, able to respond to demand for urgently needed supplies.

Australia is experiencing critical supply chain shortages as the capacity of overseas suppliers to meet their own local demand is stretched beyond breaking point. Reliable access to surgical-grade masks for health workers and the general public is a case in point.

In the news this week is a small company at Shepparton in Victoria, Med-Con, Australia’s only remaining manufacturer of surgical masks. Med-Con’s CEO, Steve Csiszar outlined his company’s manufacturing capacity before COVID-19.

“We’ve always produced a superior product; but like many local companies, we’ve lost market share to cheap Chinese imports. Because of our high design and production standards, we’ve retained a proportion of the Australian market – about 2 million units a year – a fraction of current consumption and well short of what will be needed if COVID-19 becomes as widespread as it is overseas,” Csiszar said to ADM.

To address concerns about supply shortages, the Department of Industry, Science and Technology (DIST) approached Med-Con offering to assist with ramping up production. At the time, only two of their three machines were operational.

“The challenge was threefold: insufficient machinery, raw material and trained operators. My Department sought assistance under the Defence Assistance to the Civil Community (DACC) arrangements. Minister Reynolds agreed to provide the resources needed,” Minister of Department of Industry, Science and Technology, Karen Andrews said.

“The team, which is comprised of highly qualified engineering maintenance specialists from the Army Logistic Training Centre and the Joint Logistics Unit – Victoria, is supporting the request,” Minister for Defence, Senator Linda Reynolds said.

LTCOL Nathan Crowley from the Directorate of Logistics Plans at Army Headquarters was appointed to arrange engineering support and short-term skilled labour on the production line.

“We had a ready workforce who could do repair and fabrication work needed to get their third machine operational. We had some of the best and brightest industry partners and tradesmen working on this task,” LTCOL Crowley said to ADM.

Soldiers of the Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers from Bandiana and Puckapunyal have completed refurbishment and commissioning of the unserviceable machine and are working around the clock with Med-Con as operators until extra civilian staff can be recruited and trained. These initiatives have achieved a 12-fold increase in the company’s capacity to 2 million units a month.

Med-Con pedigree

A legend among Shepparton engineers, Joe Carmody designed and built Med-Con’s machinery 30 years ago. But today, there is limited documentation available to reproduce them.

To double manufacturing capacity, civilian personnel from Victoria Barracks, Melbourne have been based at Bandiana, producing manufacturing drawings; and a local engineering firm will build three or four additional machines.

“This is important work but it’s also essential we get it right – this equipment needs to be produced to the highest standards,” Minister Andrews said.

DIST was able to recruit one of the last people to build and maintain this type of machine. Jason Vandyk, of Vandyk Specialist Engineering at Warragul, was a young fitter and turner, just out of trade school, when he worked on these machines, which he describes as: “typical Aussie engineering, designed to go forever.” Vandyk has been a key contributor to the development of new design drawings and will continue to be involved as an advisor during fabrication of the new machines.

The third challenge is access to raw materials, which are in extremely short supply, and with long lead times from overseas.
“Our masks are made from four layers of material, imported from the US, China, Turkey, and elsewhere. There is no single source of supply for all the materials we need,” Csiszar said.

“Stock normally arrives by sea aligned to our manufacturing schedule. The sudden increase in demand needed a shorter supply line. Being a small company, we don’t have the resources; but DIST, with assistance from DFAT, has helped source the materials and has arranged for air freight shipment. There are ten 12-metre containers on their way.”

“The willingness everyone has shown to help us and to find ways to overcome roadblocks has been amazing. It really shows what we can achieve as a country when we all pull together,” Csiszar said.

“From helping to access new equipment to providing staff, we are doing what we can to enable companies like Med-Con to ramp up production and boost our domestic capacity. There’s a lot of fear in the community at the moment but Australians should know that work is happening to help us best respond to this unfolding crisis,” Minister Andrews said.

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