North of Toronto, a car-parts manufacturer is retooling its assembly line to enable it to mass produce the components for medical face shields. In Montreal, a maker of surgical garments is rushing to import fabric and gowns by air rather than sea. In their different ways, both companies illustrate the industrial transformation caused by the outbreak of COVID-19 and the resulting shortage of medical equipment.
In the short term, hospitals are turning to their communities to donate unused respirators and protective gear – or even sew homemade masks for visitors so hospitals can ration professional masks for medical personnel. But to truly meet the mounting demands for supplies, Canada’s medical system requires companies to pivot into new areas of production while learning to comply with medical safety standards.
David Yeaman is in the midst of shifting his plastic-injection moulding company’s output from making auto parts to producing components of medical face shields. Molded Precision Components (MPC), a 60-person firm in Oro-Medonte Township, just north of Toronto, normally makes car housings, seals or cable fittings but “that’s all on hold. It’s all dried up,” Mr. Yeaman, the company president, said.
The company’s in-house engineers and tool designers have turned their attention to medical protective gear. Mr. Yeaman has also retained his production staff, even if it meant they would be doing maintenance.
“I’ve committed with my staff we would not lay anybody off, regardless of how much work we have,” he said.
Working with a firefighter, a paramedic and a local physician who serves high-risk patients, MPC designed a headset component for medical face shields.
They have been contacted by hospitals in Toronto, Barrie, Orillia and Simcoe County and are in negotiations to supply the federal government.
Along the way, the company learned it needed to use material that was compliant with ISO 10993, an international standard for medical devices that ensures the product can come into contact with the human body without adverse reaction.
The firm used a 3D printer to complete a prototype sample and will next need to retool the plant with newly made injection moulds for the mass production.
Mr. Yeaman expects the first mould to be ready in four weeks and would produce 5,000 a day.
“Getting the product to mass-volume numbers in four weeks is herculean. A product like this would typically take four to six months,” he said.
MPC is only making the headset for the face shields. Another company will provide the transparent visors. The final product has to comply with regulatory standards. As newcomers to medical manufacturing, MPC is leaving the red tape to a business partner, Sterling Industries, based in Concord, Ont., which specializes in contract manufacturing and assembling medical devices.
“Sterling is already discussing directly with the federal government. So they already have the contacts,” Mr. Yeaman said. “Our key was to apply what we do best and find a collaborative partner for the skills that we don’t necessarily have, thereby making the project fully viable and we know we can get it to market. Because that’s where everybody else is struggling … How do I get it certified? How do I get it to market? What are the distribution channels?”
Other companies are undertaking similar efforts. Ontario Premier Doug Ford said last week that Ontario auto parts manufacturers Linamar Corp., Magna International Inc. and Martinrea International Inc. were working together to build ventilators. Another manufacturer, Woodbridge Group, will make N95 respirators.
George Courey Inc., a supplier of medical garments based in Laval, Que., is already familiar with the health-care sector but has also had to make adjustments.
In normal times, the company keeps a reserve of 75,000 to 100,000 pieces. That supply was gone in two days after the outbreak started. “So think about it, in two days we went through our annual stockpile and since then we’ve sold half a million isolation gowns that were in production. These are abnormal times,” chief executive Jeff Courey said.
His company makes isolation and surgical gowns. They are classified according to the risk levels they can handle, from Level 1 to 4. Isolation gowns, which are worn by nurses, patients, and visitors in a hospital, are protected up to Level 2, meaning the fabric can resist pressure equivalent to a 20-centimetre water column.
Surgical gowns used in operating rooms offer Level 2 to 4 protection. A Level 4 gown should shield from blood or viral penetration and has seamless seals.
Completed gowns are inspected over light tables to spot defects in the fabric, then sent out to institutional laundries to be washed and disinfected before use.
The fabric for Courey’s Level 4 products comes from Germany and Belgium. The surgical gowns are assembled in Laval. Some of the isolation gowns are made in China, the rest at the Laval facility.
Normally the fabric is shipped by sea freight but now they are coming by air, along with other medical gown manufacturers from the rest of the world.
“Everybody is trying to airship things out of China. It’s like a battle between nations to see who can get the most stuff out of China as quickly as possible,” Mr. Courey said.
A third of his company’s output used to be linen for the hospitality sector, but with hotels and restaurants now dormant, all his resources are now focused on medical protective equipment.
“The ingenuity and creativity of Canadian enterprise is incredible and we’re seeing it especially during this period,” Mr. Courey said.
Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.