Project Med-Con

Blog : Foodmach joins the fight against COVID-19

Project Med-Con

In March 2020, Foodmach was recruited to build manufacturing equipment to produce surgical masks for Australia.

The COVID-19 crisis caused critical supply-chain shortages in Australia as overseas suppliers looked to satisfy local demand first. Stocks of surgical masks needed to be replenished urgently if COVID-19 cases continued to grow.

In response, the Australian Government developed innovative arrangements with agile companies who could respond to the urgent demand for supplies.

Med-Con, based near Shepparton, Victoria, was at that time the only factory in Australia still making surgical masks.

Despite the superior quality of their product, Med-Con’s business had dwindled to 5% of the Australian market in the last decade due to competition from China.

The Department of Industry, Science and Technology requested that Med-Con quickly increase production from 2 million to 50 million surgical masks a year.

One of Med-Con’s immediate concerns was that only two of its three mask-making machines were operational. The machines were designed and built nearly 40 years ago, and no original drawings were available to reproduce them.

As part of this time-critical innovation challenge, Australian Defence Force (ADF) engineers disassembled and modelled the non-operational Med-Con machine. Several engineering firms were assessed for competency to reverse engineer and manufacture three new machines.

Foodmach was appointed to manufacture the machines due to the company’s experience, capabilities and resources. Considering who we were competing against (large defence force suppliers, advanced engineering firms with an international footprint and vast turnover), it was the ultimate vote of confidence in Foodmach's capacity to meet the challenge.

‘Building packaging machinery requires strong expertise in mechanical engineering, electrical systems, pneumatics and motion control. Our pool of talent across all these fields and our one-stop-shop factory set-up means we can quickly build something new and complex like machines that produce surgical masks.’ said Foodmach Director Peter Marks, who has since passed away (10 Feb 2021). Peter recognised an opportunity to turn our team and community’s sense of helplessness at the pandemic into something constructive, a way to use our manufacturing skills for something immediately helpful.

But the project was not without its challenges.

‘Reverse engineering is usually a lengthy process that involves a lot of testing and adjustments.’ said Peter at the time.

‘We have 60 days from start to finish to find ways to build a machine that uses parts which have long been obsolete. Although 3D models have been provided by the ADF, these still need to be detailed on a part by part basis, materials identified and checks made that they’ll assembly correctly.'

'There will be knowledge gaps around material specifications and possibly tolerances which need to be resolved. The old design will also need to be updated to current safety, controls, and interfacing standards.’

Foodmach’s 6,600 square metres of factory and machine shop space allowed its 100-strong team of skilled staff to work around the clock—while maintaining enough distance from each other to manage COVID-19 risks.

Earle Roberts, CEO, Foodmach: ‘Keeping our workforce safe and productive in an epidemic that had the potential to threaten 40-70% of the Australian population was clearly a high priority for us at the time. Staff worked in shifts 24/7 over the course of the project to meet the deadline.'

Were we nervous about taking it on?

'Normally with a good set of drawings we’d want 16 to 20 weeks to build something new like this, so to try and complete one machine in eight weeks, and three inside 12 weeks, was a stretch to say the least.

‘The complexity of the Med-Con machines provided us with an exciting challenge. We’d obviously never built one before—but with all the necessary design, manufacture and assembly expertise under a single roof, we were well equipped for it. Still, nothing could have prepared us for the amount of reworking required.'

Foodmach delivered the first machine ahead of schedule on Day 55 and had it operational and running product within a day. The next two machines were making masks within two weeks after that, and all seven were in place and operational within 120 days.

The seven new mask machines enabled Med-Con to increase mask production from 2 million to 160 million masks a year and Australia successfully on-shored its supply of Level 3 surgical masks to protect front-line workers.

The Foodmach team kept a daily log of project updates.

See the project blog