As COVID-19 wreaked havoc nationally and demand for safety equipment grew, Victoria’s regional medical device manufacturer Care Essentials pivoted its focus to produce a range of PPE products, surgical face masks and N95 respirators.
“Our decision to explore making PPE masks came because we kept receiving calls from hospitals, federal and state departments asking if we had capability to make masks,” said Abhay Sinha, Care Essentials Managing Director.
“Being the recipient of the Export Award from the Governor of Victoria and the Australian Export Award for Regional Exporter in 2019, gave us a lot of credibility as a reliable supplier of critical medical devices.
“We quickly realised it would be possible to produce the PPE masks because we already used non-woven fabric in manufacturing our medical products.”
Care Essentials was one of eight Australian exporting businesses from a field of more than 340 companies that were recently chosen to be featured in the 2020 online Remarkable Australian Exporter showcase.
The Geelong-based company was primarily known for its manufacture of patient warming blankets, specifically its Cocoon blankets, and warming machines used by hospitals globally for more than 20 years.
The products help protect patients from hypothermia, infection and speed up recovery from surgical procedures. They are used by 60 per cent of Australian hospitals and exported to more than 50 countries, including the US, the UK, Germany, Italy, Japan, New Zealand and Canada.
Consultation with health experts
Mr Sinha said the development of the Micro Pore system, used in their warm blankets to give a uniformly-distributed air flow, helped form the basis of their initial mask designs.
“With the help of our R&D team and consultation from various subject matter experts, we were able to achieve a design which provided a high level of fit test result. This is especially crucial for N95 masks, to provide a secure seal and protection to the wearer.”
While Victorian businesses were shutting down, the company remained open and functional because it was an essential service.
Two specialized machines were initially ordered in April to start perfecting designs and enable the manufacturing of surgical masks and N95 respirator masks.
“By June, we had several designs which were sent to different laboratories in Australia, the US and Spain for testing, quality assurance and to obtain all the required certifications,” said Mr Sinha.
With the products TGA registered and ISO 13485 certified, Care Essentials relocated to larger premises and production commenced.
Within a couple of months, a further six machines were purchased to increase production and 50 additional staff were hired from local auto businesses to operate the eight machines running continuously 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“These additional machines allowed us to increase production of surgical grade masks, N95 respirators and add new products like bouffant caps, and non-slip shoe covers for healthcare workers.
“This expansion also allowed us to use more local businesses for packaging and printing and engineers to help with maintaining the equipment.
“We even started to make ear savers which previously would have been only bought from China,” said Mr Sinha.
Care Essentials then secured a Victorian Government contract to high quality single-use face masks and N95 respirators for the community and healthcare workers across the state.
“Our staff were critical to our expansion, they helped keep us going. Without their determination and willingness to follow the strict COVID-19 measures we put in place, none of this would have been possible.
“Maintaining the safety and wellbeing of our staff was our priority. We sent non-essential staff to work from home, while factory staff were monitored with thermal scanners and wore face shields and masks despite being uncomfortable.”
Mr Sinha said key learnings working under COVID-19 restrictions was the importance of maintaining regular communication with clients and suppliers and how important video conferencing had become.
“Also, as a country, we need to be self-reliant and develop sovereign capability for critical products such as medical supplies and PPE.
“You have to stay positive, be bold, trust your instincts and have a go. Don’t rely on hearsay that it can’t be done, manufacturing in Australia is still possible,” said Mr Sinha.