IF, AT THE END OF 2019, anyone had asked Innovation Engineer Brodie Fairhall about his new year plans it’s doubtful ‘developing a community-based manufacturing industry to help fight a global pandemic infecting millions and killing hundreds of thousands’would have been anywhere on his list.
But when Covid-19 declared war on the planet at the start of 2020, forcingcommunities, regions and even whole countries into lockdown a few chose to stand and fightwith the weapons available to them and Brodie, a former member of the Australian Defence Forces, was among that number.
True, he was not in the trenches but from mid-March through until the end of August he was busy in the command bunker, establishing a defensive position and setting-up supply lines to help the frontline troops.
It should be noted from the outset that while engineers do not tend to the ill they do create solutions to help the carersand for Brodie, part of the Newcastle, NSW-based Tomago Aluminium Smelter engineering team, that meant finding a way to stop the medical professionals becoming infected with the virus while doing anything from performing dental or ophthalmic duties all the way through to fightingitin a hospital ICU.
An Innovation Engineer is a problem solver, a ‘Jack-of-all-trades’ in Brodie’s words, who “looks at anynumber of curly, crazy issues, someone who comes up with an idea to see if it can be done.” And Covid-19 coughed-up a swag of problems for experts in every field.
For Brodie, 36, it was the (correct) assumption that a shortage of Personal Protection Equipment engulfing Asian, US and European hospitals at the start of the pandemic would soon become a problem for Australia.
With that in mind he focused his energies on making medical-grade face shields for use by the broader medical industry.
The problem? Setting-up a manufacturing system that could be brought on line instantly to produce the shields cheaply and in their thousands.
The solution? Using 3D printing over thetraditional production methodsto overcomean eight-week time lag on design and engineering alone. Such immediacy perfectly met his needs.
That matter decided, he turned his attention to not only designing and making the protective face shields but also devising a plan to have them made in large quantities and distributed quickly to those who needed them yesterday.
Knowing only too well that the downside to the wonderfully short set-up times for 3D printers is slow production speeds that limit total output, he recognised that dozens, maybe hundreds and possibly thousands would be needed to meet the demand.
“We needed to do something quickly. I was already part of a 3D printing group and we started the project with 15 people initially. Then we connected with a Brisbane-based group,” he recalled.
That start made, Brodie began tracking down and contacting printer owners throughout Australia and New Zealand, everyone from individuals with home printers through to large companies with hundreds of devices that could be quickly brought on-line.
“Everyone wanted to be involved and a lot of people were trying to do the same thing,” Brodie remembers. “I thought it made sense to form-up as a co-operative so we became the Open Manufacturing Alliance which quickly grew to 308 members who, combined, produced 50,000 face shields in a few weeks.”
That produced a printer ‘farm’ –hundreds and hundreds of 3D printers shared among single-unit owners and large businesses. One member, Brisbane-based industrial design company 3D One, could not only make 500 face shields daily but could also package and warehouse 10,000 units and handle the certification paperwork needed to get the face shields into circulation.
The entire package was, in Brodie-speak, ‘democratised manufacturing producing lifesaving equipment on a virtual production line’.
The Covid Crisis also brought Brodie into contact with Sparkhaus, a not-for-profit community makerspace started and managed by Hamish Meares and his partner Leannaand snuggled in the industrial suburb of Islington, a stone’s throw from Newcastle’s city centre.
Effectively a super shed, it has 30-plus members and some very sophisticated equipment, including 3D printers and laser cutters, and it was here that Brodie was able to draw great support and glean information from Hamish who, in real life, is an anaesthetist working in the regional cities’ hospitals.
At the time of writing Hamish was busy in the super man-cave designing and prototyping an ICU-grade respirator for general use and as a hedge against future crises.
While he was dealing with the production practicalities Brodie was also being thrust into an administrative role with the alliance for which he was unprepared and while he didn’t really want it he was willing to step-up to the crease.
“I got the organiser’s role almost by default. I had created an administrative role without giving it much thought and I had to step into it. It wasn’t something I was familiar with because, you know, I’m an engineer. It was the first time I’d managed or moderated a large group of people.”
While he was coming to terms with co-op management and production standardisation Brodie was also forced to deal with doctors, hospitals, politicians and public servants in an effort to both have the face shields accepted by the broader medical community and get them distributed quickly for widespread use.
“The people I was calling –from general practitioners to dentists to federal MPs – had no idea about who I needed to see or the steps I needed to take to get the face shields into general use in hospitals or medical practices.
“I spent three or four days making phone calls and just kept getting duck-shuffled through various departments. It was a learning experience; I had to overcome a lot of ‘white noise’.
“Two weeks into the project I was working on it every waking hour for around eight weeks. I was exhausted by the end.“
There were hoops to jump through and I was getting conflicting information. Frontline medical workers were telling us they desperately needed equipment, some procurement officers were telling a different story.”
Community-minded employer Tomago Aluminium allowed Brodie time to work on his alliance role. Working a punishing schedule, he split his regular work tasks with the face shield project during his rostered work hoursbefore switching fully to the manufacturing alliance at 4pm, finally crawling into bed at midnight to grab a few hours’ sleep before starting all over again when his early morning alarm went off.
Sleep, he reasoned, was overrated and weekends were for other people - he had to deal with things like design and manufacture, quality control, product approvalas well ascertification and use – “problems and issues needing solutions yesterday”. And when the shields were ready to be distributed, hospitals were unsure if they wereallowed to use non-approved equipment sent by individual suppliersrather than procured through the usual channels.
“That problem was sorted when some large medical companies became involved and were able to get Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) approval for the design that alliance members were producing.
“Once we had TGA approval and could get the product out, there was suddenly demand,” he recalled.
In one of those reflective, post-eventmoments, Brodie says the COVID-19 pandemic should prove to governments and businesses alike that democratised manufacturing is a reality, especially in a crisis.
“It’s obvious that this type of manufacturing sector is capable of responding quickly and that should help in future crises. We’ve not only learned from theexperience but understand and accept that it is possible to team up, innovate and makeproducts locally.
”Brodie says the experience showed him that, for some in the manufacturing sector, 3D printing could change their business modelbut adds that, with each mask taking around 40 minutes to print, it may not always be the best way to manufacture something
"In general termsit’s instant and a job that would take six to eight weeks for the tooling alone if it were to be mass-produced using plastic injection-moulding but can be designed, set-up and completed in a day with 3D.
“The difference is that 3D printing is slow in real terms and a thousand moulded plastic items can be made in the time it takes us to print one item. But the two processes can complement each other and in an emergency, like the Covid-19 pandemic .......”
The reaction by the Open Manufacturing Alliance to the COVID-19 crisis could also prove vital. Looking to the future, Brodie says he has been studying other types of productsthat will be demand-driven and suggests there is good scope for localised post-Covid-19 manufacturing-and not all of it will involve 3D printing.The face shields born from critical necessity could even, he suggests, stand as an introductory example for restarting widespread Australian manufacturing in a post-COVID world.