Blog : How a 40 yr old invention played a role in COVID-19

Tribute to Joe Carmody

When the mission to rebuild Australia’s medical mask production began, our inclination was to name the project after Joe Carmody, inventor of the only Australian designed and built mask machines.

The problem was, barely anyone outside of his regional community in Victoria knew who Joe was. In order to put Aussie engineering in the spotlight from the get-go, it was instead named after the company that enlisted us, with the help of the Australian Government, to recreate his ingenious design. Med-Con, Australia’s only manufacturer of medical masks when COVID-19 reached our nation’s shores, had plenty of media attention and the name had become instantly recognisable.

Project Med-Con stood on Joe’s shoulders, and we did our best to inject his name into the conversation.

We did so on our project blog, which had thousands of hits a day and our social media channels which had considerably more. But the task remains to give full credit to the brilliant mind that gave us this life-saving machine.

Forty years later, and largely forgotten in the expanse of time, both the man and the machine deserve Australia’s acknowledgement and gratitude.

Joe Carmody, we salute you.

May this tribute be a small taste of the recognition to come—not only for the Carmody Mask Machine—but for your lifetime of achievement.

You are one in a million.

(Photos of Joe above and right: used with permission from photographer Simmon Pang).

Joseph Thomas Carmody was born in Shepparton in 1928.

After completing high school, he trained at the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation in Melbourne.

The CAC was established in 1936, to provide Australia with the capability to produce military aircraft and engines. Joe was apprenticed there as a fitter and turner towards the end of WWII, building Australian-designed aircraft.  

He relocated back to Shepparton when the war finished. After dabbling in motorcycle mechanics, Joe found work at Shepparton Preserving Company (SPC) to support his new family. SPC, one of Australia’s oldest fruit processors, had its own canning line.

Ardmona started up their own can making plant in Mooroopna in 1959, nearby. There, as manager and lead engineer, he developed a full can palletiser, which must surely have been one of the world’s first.

Vernon Chessells, who started working with Joe Carmody as an apprentice: ‘Before that, it was all manual handling at the canneries. When I worked with him at Carmody Specialist Engineering, we used a 4-foot magnet on a big pneumatic cylinder to automatically load cans of fruit onto pallets. Joe also made depalletisers and inspection systems for cans, way before anyone else did.’

Joe set up Carmody Specialist Engineering (CSE) in his early 50’s after Ardmona—where he had been the factory supervisor for 11 years. But he continued to make equipment for them. Carmody Specialist Engineering was by all accounts a busy place.

Engineer and best mate, Geoff Rose, who met Joe at Ardmona and worked with Joe over a lifetime: ‘Joe was known in engineering circles all over Australia. If you had a real bad engineering problem that no one else could fix, Joe was the man. Engineers in other parts of Australia would find him by word of mouth. He could fix anything. He loved it.’

‘Joe didn’t like to be called an inventor—he preferred to say he ‘developed machines’—but he certainly was!’

Vernon Chessells agrees: ‘Joe hated the word ‘inventor’ and didn’t class himself as one. But he was always up for a challenge. If there was something that no one else could do, that’s what he wanted to do.’

We'll use the word 'creator' instead.

Joe created the unique Med-Con mask machine in 1983.

He made his first machine for a business in Shepparton (Finwad) and a second for its parent company in Finland. Carmody Specialist Engineering was a founding partner of Med-Con in 1989, which is 100% Australian owned and operated to this day.

Geoff Serra also worked with Joe to build Med-Con mask machines: ‘I worked with Carmody Specialist Engineering 22 years ago and was with Joe right through the research and development stages of the original machines. Never would I have believed it would have been reverse engineered 30 years after. The engineering in these machines is quite amazing.’

‘I travelled the world with them. We had the only single-operator mask machines in the world back then—they were so far ahead of their time. I’m overjoyed the Carmody legacy lives on.’

‘And I must say, we certainly didn’t have the resources Foodmach has back then in that cold workshop in Annerley Avenue in Shepparton.’

Vernon Chessells agrees: ‘The first mask machine took over 12 months to build. Joe Carmody, Geoff Rose fabricating, myself as a first-year apprentice and Lyn Stockwell (Joe’s daughter) in the office in the original little shed in Annerley Avenue. No computer-aided drafting, just lots of sketches. No MIG, no TIG, just the stick welder and silver solder. We used a shaper and planing machine to get a flat surface on the carriage section, a universal milling machine to cut gears and line boring and milling. And lots of surface grinding. Hercus lathe and a larger lathe for turning, no digital readout. Joe had built his own milling machine which we also used. That was the start of Joe Carmody’s machine tool collection, the first CNC was in May 1988. Joe worked 12 to 14 hrs a day, 8 days a week. And he was so fast, so accurate in his work, he could run rings around anyone.’

‘Once we got going, we would churn out a new machine every three months between three people. We even did our own electroplating in-house, using an old forklift battery charger as a power source and custom-made tanks. We got sick of losing parts when we sent them to Melbourne for finishing.’

In Geoff Serra’s case, he also travelled with Joe to commission the machines and tells us that in fact, some 15 or so machines were made and sent all over the world—to not only Australia and Finland but Spain, Japan, Holland, Tunisia, the USA, Czech Republic and Venezuela.

They were ground-breaking for their time, and Joe created them from the ground up, concept to drawing to cutting steel and manufacturing.

If you’re wondering, like we are, whether those machines are still going now, Jason Vandyk, who was one of the last people to work with Joe to manufacture them, and has been consulting on the project and mentoring Foodmach on the rebuild, says they’re: ‘Typical Aussie engineering, designed to go forever. So probably, yes.’

Why were Joe’s machines in demand by a global market?

They were the only mask machines in the world that only needed a single operator.

At the time, overseas manufacturers needed multiple operators on a mask line, which usually involved three separate machines. Joe’s all-in-one machines were completely automated, even packaging the masks into boxes. And they were apparently the very first to use ultrasonic welders, another major innovation for the period. Everyone else was using glue.

One of the international buyers reportedly said: ‘We’ve looked at every [mask making] machine in the world. We can see that every detail [in the Carmody machine] is perfection.’

The quality of his work was not often given the recognition it deserved. Jason, who came to work with Joe at age 22, came from a precision-tooling background. ‘Joe’s machines were of such high precision I felt immediately, completely at home. Tolerances? There were none. Every single part fitted perfectly into every other part. The Australian Defence Force draftsmen who were modelling the mask machine could hardly believe it. But people who received work from Joe never really understood the level of quality he gave them.’

By 1989, when Joe set up Med-Con with his partners, he had already developed and exported the mask machine overseas. Med-Con was a way to test his amazing creation in situ and make it even more reliable. It also acted as a showroom for buyers to inspect.

Geoff Serra: ‘The whole time we were building machines there was simultaneously a whole heap of R&D going on. But the mask machines were really perfected at Med-Con.’

The original mask machine sprayed glue onto the tape that binds the edges of the mask—this was the industry standard. Glue build-up on the moving parts was a problem, and doctors complained about the smell of the glue. Joe’s machine became the first in the world to use ultrasonic welders to manufacture masks, which is described as the use of radiofrequency on crystals to create a vibration that applies heat in a focused area.

Joe retrofitted the stitch wheels by pulling off the glue nozzles and found a way to fit the ultrasonic welders. He then modified the laminator section of the machine, which combines multiple layers of non-woven textile using heat elements to fuse them. There was no glue, no smell and no burn marks.

Ultrasonics changed everything. And others copied.

Another of his innovations was to retrofit parts onto the laminator to add an anti-fogging device to the mask. This soft piece of plastic which was added to the nose wire area meant that health workers who wore glasses didn’t have to constantly wipe them clear of condensation.

Joe didn’t only invent the mask machine. He would create whatever he couldn’t procure or afford. He made his own 1.5-foot telescope: hand-ground the glass to make the convex and concave pieces, had the mirror section silvered and constructed it with an eyepiece that Jason Vandyk says was ‘gorgeous and made it look like a saleable item. He made it because he was interested in what he could see through it, which turned out to be things that were a 45-minute drive away.’

He also designed and developed machines that produce disposable headwear (surgical caps) and protective shoe covers. Med-Con commenced trading with some of the world’s most sophisticated equipment of its kind—that with a bit of updating—are still ahead of the competition today.

Joe’s design produces such high-quality masks that Med-Con has maintained a market share for medical masks in Australia, despite the flood of cheaper imports.

As engineers, we appreciate the ingenuity of Joe Carmody’s engineering. He truly is a legend.

But what was he like as a person?

Jason Vandyk: ‘You worked with Joe, not for Joe. You could discuss anything and he would never knock anyone’s opinions. He was a soft guy; a gentleman.’

Geoff Rose: ‘I could never get over how good a person he was. He was the most honest man I’ve ever known in my life. When you first met him, you would think him a bit odd—and he was an introvert—but everyone who got to know him liked him. And everyone who worked with him ended up being a very good engineer. We would, all of us, walk over coals for him.’

Vernon Chessells: ‘If he had a fault it was that he was too trusting. A lot of people took advantage of that.’

Geoff Rose: ‘He was far more interested in what he was making. He was this little guy that talked about strange things. He read so much that he knew something about everything. I could never catch him out with that. Sometimes I’d search out new information to see if I could tell him something he didn’t know, but it never worked. He was a MENSA member, but I don’t think he was particularly social about it.’

MENSA is the largest and oldest IQ society in the world. It is open to people who score at the 98th percentile or higher on standardised IQ testing; basically genius-level. Joe, however, did not promote this. Geoff Serra remarked that he wasn’t even aware Joe was a MENSA member until now, but it certainly doesn’t surprise him.

‘He was brilliant—just brilliant. But so humble.’

Vernon Chessells: ‘When Joe was concentrating, he didn’t see or hear anything. He would sometimes walk out the door and walk for 5km and come back with an idea for something new. In his later years, he would rollerblade, which drew some attention—a 70 and 80-something-year-old flying through the streets of Shepparton at speed. And he loved to discuss ideas. He wanted you to just keep asking questions, and he would never stop asking them either.’

Geoff Serra: ‘Joe would walk around with a piece of steel in his hand, just feeling it, as if sensing the possibilities within. He had that whole machine working in his head before he even sat down to start drawing. After a few hours at his huge drawing board, he’d emerge with this exquisite hand-drawn set of plans.’

Joe featured in the book ‘The Local Heroes: Volume 1: Greater Shepparton’ by Simmon Pang. In it, he is quoted as saying ‘Life is an art. My whole life has been art, fusing engineering, science and art together. There is a lot of ‘my humanity – me’ in what I do, the human energy is fused into the work.’

Recreating Joe’s work

Thanks to Jason Vandyk’s careful directing, the critical parts of the Carmody Mask Machine have been kept as Joe intended.

Jason, who now runs his own business, Vandyk Specialist Engineering: ‘This project to re-build Joe’s machines had to happen for the country [under COVID-19]. But when Ray Stockwell from Med-Con first called me, I answered with ‘Need some servicing done mate?’ because I still work on Med-Con’s equipment. He just laughed and said, ‘Actually, it’s much, much worse. Can you build these mask machines again?’

‘I’m a one-man-band. So clearly, no. But that wasn’t the challenge.’

‘I remember the four-door filing cabinet that held all the drawings for Joe’s mask machine. I used to go to it nearly every day. The cabinet, complete with drawings, all went as office equipment when his workshop was auctioned off. Ray had maybe 20-30% of the original drawings in his possession at Med-Con; almost nothing of the critical components and basically a lot of frames. I poured over the partial drawings for the first day, and then with the Australian Defence Force’s help, we got to work.’

‘All of my customers' work had to go on hold. And for the next few months, I was working with the ADF and Foodmach on Project Med-Con. Foodmach were chosen over a few other, bigger engineering firms for the build because they asked all the right questions. It was clear they could make the project work. But we didn’t have time to do any re-inventing; it was going to be challenging enough as it was.’

Jason diplomatically worked with a bunch of new engineers that all had ideas about making improvements. As much as he supported the modernisation of electronics and controls, his advice was frequently: ‘Don’t touch that bit if you want the machine to work.’

As he explains: ‘Joe’s design is so mechanically elegant, it functions indefinitely. All the components that wear out can be replaced.’

‘Joe’s knowledge of mechanical engineering was second to none.'

'He’s the mechanical version of Neo in The Matrix—he could see 3-dimensional parts in a piece of steel. And bring them to life; such was the connection between his brain and his hands.’

The original working machines at Med-Con are a testament to that. Jason has been the sage in the middle, working between all the various players involved in Project Med-Con, guiding everyone through the complexity of the build while keeping the integrity of the design.

After seeing Med-Con’s new Machine 1 in its final stages of dry commissioning, Geoff Serra said: ‘It’s Joe’s machine! It’s had a facelift, with a new brain. But it’s all Joe.’

That’s what we’ve been thinking as we’ve been commissioning the first Australian-made medical mask machines for many decades. In their heart and their soul, these are Joe Carmody’s machines. They’re his legacy.

And it’s been a privilege to recreate them.

See more about Project Med-Con

Reference: ‘The Local Heroes – Volume 1: Greater Shepparton’ by Simmon Pang, edited by Jan Grant, 2009. Available from Lost Shepparton with proceeds going to the Shepparton Historical Society. (Includes Simmon Pang photos on this page and a beautifully written section by Joe himself—highly recommended).