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Staff at MPC wear the face shields the company began making after the pandemic started.HANDOUT

When businesses were ordered to shut down in March of 2020, David Yeaman was thinking of ways to keep his enterprise afloat.

“We had 55 staff, 23 moulding machines and a lot of capabilities. So, we thought: how do we apply that to COVID?” says Mr. Yeaman, president at MPC, an industrial component manufacturer in Oro-Medonte, Ont.

With global supply chains in disarray and emergency stockpiles of medical supplies either depleted or expired, small manufacturers across the country like Molded Precision Components (MPC) quickly pivoted their businesses to make essential goods the country needed. Within seven days, MPC designed a face shield, applied for funding to get the machinery needed to make the shields, and prepared to entirely shift their business. “That was more than a crazy day at the office,” Mr. Yeaman quips.

After a $5-million federal grant, 10 months, and manufacturing 27 million face shields, MPC has returned to its standard business. While Mr. Yeaman says the company was happy to keep frontline workers safe, help the community, and stay afloat through the pandemic. However, manufacturers and supply chain experts alike are concerned about the resilience of the supply chain if another health emergency were to strike.

As international trade ground to a halt in the early days of the pandemic, Canada, which imported its medical supplies from countries like China, experienced widespread shortages. “Alberta went through 33,000 surgical masks a day just giving regular care, but during the first few weeks of the pandemic it was 750,000,” says Anne Snowdon, a professor at the University of Windsor’s Odette School of Business who is researching the medical supply chain during COVID-19. “It gives you an order of magnitude of how big the surge was in products that we needed.”

From the start of the pandemic to June 2022, the federal government spent over $11-billion procuring personal protective equipment (PPE), and according to the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, nearly a quarter of Canadian manufacturers had pivoted in some way to making healthcare supplies, producing everything from masks, face shields, medical gowns, testing equipment, ventilators and even body bags.

“It really wasn’t a uniquely Canadian experience to find that we were woefully under-masked,” says Rebecca Hancock-Howard, a health economist who co-authored a Canadian Standards Association (CSA) report on the medical supply chain during COVID-19. “But in Canada, going back many decades, people have been worried that we’ve been offshoring our manufacturing capacity.”

The sudden shortages left policymakers scrambling to lift regulatory barriers and offer emergency funding to domestic manufacturers. But the pivot to allow companies to manufacture items such as plastic face shields, at the speed and scale required, was no easy task, Mr. Yeaman says. “You still have to meet all the federal, provincial requirements and regulations wrapped around it.”

Additionally, MPC had to set up 14 new moulding machines, converted the local Oro hockey arena into warehouse space, relocated their automation team to a local fire hall, and developed a manufacturing process for the face shields. “To those who say a shield should be pretty simple to make: try to make a design that meets regulations and build a manufacturing system that can produce 27 million face shields,” he says.

In the early waves of the pandemic, “there were a lot of challenges on the urgent, chaotic procurements,” Ms. Snowdon says. “There were no procurement contracts in many cases. It was: ‘let’s do our best. Can you send me a million of something, whatever it is?’” She continues: “How does any manufacturer get their product to those health systems in the massive chaos of a pandemic?”

But through the tribulations of the pivot, Mr. Yeaman says the importance of supplying hospitals, long-term care homes and businesses was worth the effort. “Would I do it again? Absolutely. We knew that it wasn’t going to be this boom forever. It created a good bridge for, and we have a core business to return to.”

Some companies, like Canadian Shield in Waterloo, Ont., and NovoShield in Coquitlam, B.C., have made permanent transitions to healthcare, but Mr. Yeaman is worried about those who started from scratch to make these goods. “They basically have to shut down because there’s no core business, right? There’s no business that was there to begin with, so those people are hurting pretty bad.”

Ms. Howard also heard of distilleries that switched to making hand sanitizer, only to produce too much and struggle to sell their inventory when demand died down. “There were brewers saying: ‘We’re making all this hand sanitizer, but nobody here is buying it, and we don’t know what to do with it all,’ " Ms. Howard says. “It went too far in another direction, in some cases. It’s about finding a balance for having a base of domestic supply.”

Stephen Loftus, chief executive officer of Innovation Automation in Barrie, Ont., says his company was part way through getting their TidalPump ventilator approved for production when they decided it was no longer financially feasible to continue through the regulatory approval process. The company had spent around $60,000 for its initial design and would have had to invest another $225,000 for final approvals. “The government at that point had handed out money to people in that space … probably several million dollars to several companies across Ontario,” he says. “If the government’s paid someone half a million dollars to develop this, who else are they going to buy from?”

However, Mr. Loftus says they were able to produce 750,000 to 1 million face shields for local hospitals and long-term care facilities, selling them at cost while keeping employees paid.

“I look at things that are my responsibility as an employer within our community. So, if that means I have to invest in something to help keep my community safe and to make sure that one of our employee’s or one of our employees’ families are safe, then I have no issue doing that,” he says.

While demand has died down, Mr. Yeaman, Ms. Howard and Ms. Snowdon all say that there are holes in the supply chain should a new COVID variant, pandemic, or other emergency – be it mass flooding or fires – emerge. Each says that changing procurement policies to prioritize domestic manufacturers would help create a baseline level of production if disaster were to strike.

“The ability to react is what will disappear, so any investment that went into building up the capacity to supply will diminish,” says Mr. Yeaman. “It was really easy for a one-time deal, but then you’ll be back in the same situation you were in, in 2019.”

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