How UK innovation has helped the PPE crisis
With demand for effective PPE skyrocketing because of Covid-19, Jo Talbot, Marketing Manager for Tecman Advanced Material Engineers, writes on how the company has innovated to create a safe, effective and comfortable product for frontline staff across the country.
The period of soul searching following the worst of this pandemic has already begun and nowhere is scrutiny more appropriate than on the topic of PPE. The Covid-19 outbreak has exposed severe vulnerabilities in all aspects of PPE manufacturing, the quality of product and the supply chain needed to deliver this constant flow of lifesaving equipment to the frontline in care homes and hospitals.
When the UK was placed under lockdown in March, manufacturing companies were placed under enormous strain by the economy slowdown that followed. This was no different for us at Tecman, where over 60 per cent of our business was disrupted. On the flip side this also resulted in a large amount of manufacturing capacity being released, so we sought ways in which we could adapt to support the healthcare sector in its hour of need.
Rapidly adjusting to innovate
Tecman is already expert in the manufacturing of advanced materials, with over 25 years’ experience of providing components and services to the healthcare and medical sector. Our business model is based on developing bespoke solutions (or components) using advanced materials that address our customers’ pain points and add value to their application processes or end-product.
The company was already supplying ventilator gaskets and components for diagnostic equipment so we investigated other ways in which we could help, especially in relation to PPE.
As the Covid-19 crisis rapidly unfolded, alarming shortages of PPE were exposed throughout our health and care system. Additionally, for those healthcare staff who did have access to full PPE the shocking effects of wearing ill-fitting or uncomfortable equipment on the faces of exhausted staff became an all-too-familiar image in ICU units across the country. With an obvious need for safe, effective, comfortable and widely available PPE highlighted, we knew we had to focus on face and eye protection that addressed these issues.
As an engineering company, Tecman naturally focuses on innovation; it is part of our DNA and company values. We also have a customer-centric approach to R&D and product development to ensure we constantly exceed our customers’ expectations. Focus groups have been set up to consult healthcare workers on their comfort needs, and to ensure that clinical priorities are embedded into the product development process.
With this in mind, we set out to develop a face shield that could address the short-term supply issue, and a new line of face and eye protection that provided comfort for the wearer. Frontline staff were already working under strenuous conditions, so we wanted to alleviate as much discomfort as we could. We identified that the best way to support the sector was to develop a disposable face-shield (designed for comfort) suitable for high-volume manufacture, as quickly as we could.
Initial concepts for various items of PPE were expedited and shortlisted but within one week we had designed a face-shield for high-volume manufacture and fast-tracked it for CE Category III mark certification. Thanks to support from our UK-based healthcare supply partners, we had sourced all materials from UK manufacturers.
Our flagship Category III face-shield is the first in a new line of face and eye protection that comprehensively addresses the comfort and safety needs of healthcare workers while being entirely British made.
We have swiftly moved from innovative manufacturing to mass distribution. Recent investment in our automation procedures have upped our manufacturing capacity to 1 million face-shields per week. We are now in discussions to supply the Department of Health and Social Care with future requirements.
In responding to the nationwide shortage of PPE equipment, innovation is only part of the answer. We needed to distribute the face-shields across the country, and our largest distribution partner, Medscope, has been instrumental in ensuring the flow of face-shields to the frontline.
“PPE equipment has always been part of our portfolio,” says David Plotts, Group Business Development Director for Medscope, “but the sheer demand brought on by the pandemic created a unique set of challenges. With so much demand for PPE, much of the manufactured products we typically source was being rapidly bought up by competitors and governments globally.” The struggle for Medscope was to ensure that the UK continued to receive the PPE that it needed. “There was, and still is, a strong feeling of obligation to help the NHS, so any potential delay in shipments was an incredibly stressful prospect for the team.”
In working on this with Tecman at the start of the pandemic, it was quite clear to David that this was a high-quality product and, with the millions of face-shields that Medscope has sold, there has not been a single complaint.
“Tecman have been wonderful to work with and our partnership has been incredibly effective. We are proud to work with such an innovative British manufacturer,” added David.
Ensuring the security of the PPE pipeline
Fortunately it seems that, with the worst of the initial peak of Covid-19 now behind us, the landscape has stabilised to some extent – this has been aided by a recent announcement of 2 billion pieces of PPE equipment having been delivered to health and social care staff in recent weeks. But there is no room for complacency, we must keep working to both improve our ability to deliver the right quantities of PPE, and to deliver products that are truly safe, effective and comfortable to our frontline heroes. Tecman will continue to use its expanding group of innovative engineers to develop ever more effective equipment.