The factory floor is frantic inside Australia’s only medical mask manufacturing company.
“We were making about maybe 2 million masks a year and all of a sudden now we’re potentially looking at, with added machines, making as much as 50 million masks a year,” Med-Con CEO Steve Csiszar told 7.30.
Before the coronavirus outbreak his small business supplied about 5 per cent of the Australian market from its factory in Shepparton in Victoria.
“Our staffing is approximately 17 people but with what’s happened now it’s been a total upheaval,” Mr Csiszar said.
“We’re hiring people by the day, machines are running 24/7 and we’ve never seen so much activity in Shepparton.”
Army personnel join production line
As the scale of the coronavirus became apparent, the Federal Government approached the company to see if it was in a position to make millions of medical mask as quickly as possible.
“We explained our situation, we explained our limitations of our current resources,” Mr Csiszar said.
“We only had two machines operational, we had a third machine mothballed, and we only had two trained operators.”
Mr Csiszar and the Government worked out a way to quickly increase production by deploying 14 Australian Defence Force personnel to the factory three weeks ago.
“It almost looks like an army barracks now,” he said.
“We’ve got army personnel in there, we’ve got guys on the floor who are actually very highly trained soldiers, some of them are electrical engineers.
“Actually they’re running them very, very well at the moment.
“I wish I could keep them forever, they’re fantastic, but that’s not the goal. The goal is to get local employment going.”
Sourcing raw materials
Now the factory has the capacity to make more masks, the biggest hurdle is getting enough raw materials from overseas.
“There are no raw material supplies in Australia of this type so that is a big problem,” Mr Csiszar said.
The countries that Med-Con would normally order supplies from are holding onto their stocks for domestic use.
“They’re very reticent about letting us have some.
“We’ve got the embassies working on our behalf to go to the manufacturers in the respective countries and trying to get them to release materials.”
Mr Csiszar said there were 10 12-metre containers of raw materials on the way to the factory.
Australian manufacturing boost
Med-Con has been operating in Australia for decades but was only supplying a very small percentage of Australia’s medical industry due to competition from China.
“We need to have more industry here so we don’t face this situation again, particularly if it happens in the future,” Mr Csiszar said.
“Easily the bulk (of PPE) would be coming out of China and the centre for China as a manufacturer actually happens to be Wuhan, where the whole thing started.”
There are currently severe shortages of Personal Protective Equipment worldwide.
The prices of masks and gowns have surged since the virus outbreak.
“We have a lot of experience going back 30 years … all sorts of PPE products that over time have stopped being made primarily because Australia wasn’t competitive,” Mr Csiszar said.
“But we can ramp up all those processes — we can make gowns, we can make all sorts of products.”
Last week, the Federal Government issued a request for companies around Australia to come forward if they could help produce PPE.
Australia’s capacity to produce more equipment locally will now be mapped.
More than 130 companies have come forward so far.
“I’d like to think that we alone could do it but that’s not the case,” Mr Csiszar said.
“I think you probably need a few people doing it because you just need the security that if someone goes down you’ve got someone else there to back them up.”
Filling the National Medical Stockpile
In a statement, the Federal Government told 7.30 it continues to purchase supplies of PPE as part of the National Medical Stockpile to ensure support of essential health services.
“The Government is working with international and in-country suppliers to continue to increase PPE supplies in the short and long term and has already sourced over 400 million surgical masks and a range of other PPE supplies,” the Department of Health said in a statement.
Mr Csiszar hopes that once the pandemic passes, local manufacturing will continue to be supported.
“I think people need to be cognisant of the fact that we need Australian manufacturing and when the drama and this virus calm down, not to forget about us,” he said.