An increased demand for medical supplies worldwide provides an opportunity for the engineering profession and manufacturing sector to contribute to the fight against COVID-19.
Toilet paper and pasta might be flying off supermarket shelves, but the demand for medical personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks is also of increasing concern, especially for medical staff and those more susceptible to the virus.
Earlier this month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated 89 million medical masks, 76 million pairs of gloves and 1.6 million sets of goggles would be required each month to deal with the coronavirus.
While engineers might not be part of the frontline response to COVID-19, this does provide an opportunity for action from the profession and related sectors.
On Tuesday, the Federal Government announced that a dozen Australian Defence Force (ADF) engineers had been mobilised to assist Med-Con Pty Ltd – a manufacturer near Shepparton in regional Victoria – to increase production of medical PPE such as surgical face masks, sanitiser, goggles and gowns.
“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,” said Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds.
“This is important work but it’s also essential we get it right – this equipment needs to be produced to the highest standards.”
The ADF team comprises engineering maintenance specialists from the Army Logistic Training Centre and the Joint Logistics Unit – Victoria. They will be assisting the company’s existing staff on production, maintenance and warehousing tasks, and will be helping out under Defence Assistance to the Civil Community (DACC) arrangements – the same provision that allowed the military to be called in to help respond to the bushfire crisis.
“The Defence support will fill a short-term gap while Med-Con Pty Ltd recruits and trains supplementary staff,” said Reynolds.
“This is an example of the kind of exceptional circumstances which the DACC rules are designed to cover.”
Domestic production capacity
The Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources has also put out a Request for Information (RFI) to map domestic production capacity of medical PPE.
The Department is seeking information on production capabilities for items including surgical gowns, gloves, goggles, hand sanitisers, clinical waste bags, waste bag closure devices (ties), blood and fluid spill kits, mask-fit test kits and thermometers.
“We are casting the net as widely as we can, asking manufacturers if they have the ability to diversify the work they do,” said Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews.
“Australian manufacturers have already been reaching out with offers to help. I’m confident our Aussie ingenuity will guide us through this difficult time.”
UK manufacturers answer the call
Manufacturers in the UK are also getting ready for action. More than 60 companies responded to a request from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday as part of a call to produce 20,000 ventilators in two weeks.
UK manufacturers such as Vauxhall and Airbus are planning to 3D print parts for ventilators to treat coronavirus patients, with Rolls-Royce and Jaguar Land Rover also among the firms ready to assist in the ‘war-time’ type effort.
“We are experts at assembly and efficient mass production; we know how to process and we know how to make it lean,” said Helen Foord, Head of Government Relations at Vauxhall.
“We’ve offered our services as an assembly plant and we have 3D-printing capability at Ellesmere Port [car factory] too.”
For further information on the RFI by the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, click here.
There is also currently a register for Australian based manufacturers and individuals looking to assist with supply of goods, services or knowledge in tackling the current COVID-19 outbreak in Australia. To learn more, click here.
Engineers could absolutely be on the frontlines in specifying appropriate air conditioning and ventilation systems in all types of buildings. An ASHRAE report from 2014, reaffirmed in February 2020, has very clear guidance regarding the measures that HVAC specialists can employ to minimise disease transmission inside buildings. The abstract to the report is particularly pertinent in mentioning the potential impact of a “future pandemic caused by a new infectious agent”.