Blog : Foodmach joins the fight against COVID-19
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 that 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.
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.
‘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 that 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 5,500 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 project took 15,000 staff hours with 8,800 hours of overtime from a team that poured its collective heart and soul into making the impossible possible.
We documented the process daily and shared it on our blog, which went global and created a following.
Australian media picked up the story and Project Med-Con was widely publicised in print, radio and on TV.
The project changed the conversation around Australia’s surgical mask shortages from: “Mistakes have been made and now there’s nothing we can do” to: “Using Australian ingenuity, anything is possible”. It provided hope for the millions of Australians who viewed Project Med-Con media coverage and the thousands of new followers we gained on social media where we shared our Med-Con blog updates.
In a speech to the ABC Press Club in May 2020, the then Australian Federal Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, Karen Andrews, said:
“Foodmach has a unique story as a pioneer of food production machinery, but they pivoted to this vital national task… And in another great chapter in this story, today’s the day Med-Con will receive its first new machine from Foodmach.
“When I first called Ray at Med-Con in February, they were the only Aussie manufacturer of face masks and his normal annual production was around 2 million a year. Now, by the end of this year, they will have produced 59 million masks. They will have gone from 14 to 98 staff. And they will have significantly strengthened our ongoing sovereign capability for this vital product.”
Med-Con were delighted with their seven new machines.
Steve Csizar, CEO, Med-Con: “The professionalism of your staff is a credit to Foodmach. The finished product is more than we could have hoped for. It’s an outstanding effort.
"When you look at the things Foodmach did to bring the [mask machines] into the 21st century… they are technologically very, very advanced."
In March 2022, Foodmach won the Australian Packaging and Processing Machinery Association's Community Contribution Award.
The award recognises an organisation that demonstrates leadership and commitment to community well-being.
In the same year, Foodmach was nominated for a Victorian Manufacturing Hall of Fame Award for Outstanding Responsiveness to COVID-19 Award for Project Med-Con.
Peter Marks was nominated for the Honour Roll – Service to Industry Award.
Working together with local community organisations, we open our doors each year to students from around Victoria.
Participants are provided with factory tours, live equipment demonstrations and given the chance to explore job roles within our business.
Project Med-Con provides a very pertinent example of how engineers solve the world’s problems.
Earle Roberts, Foodmach CEO: "Students are excited to see how Aussie engineers landed on the world stage, simply by rolling up their sleeves and doing what they do best.
"When Covid hit, it was immaterial that our factory usually solves food and drink manufacturers' problems by making packaging machinery. Design-thinking and engineering ingenuity enable us to build anything—and so we did.
"Then we went the extra mile and built the first Australian-designed ear loop mask machine. As engineers, we love a challenge."
Monash Business School at Monash University is among the institutions that have since visited our factory, with one of their professors saying "Project Med-Con is a fantastic story of innovation and collaboration [and makes for a] really strong learning case for our business students."
Museums Victoria documented the Foodmach Project Med-Con story for possible inclusion in their pandemic collection.