Jo Talbot, Marketing Manager for Tecman Group, puts forward the case for sustainable UK PPE manufacturing.

UK industry is strong, resilient, innovative and resourceful. For Tecman, the pandemic has demonstrated that if you invest in your team and automation technology, diversify and develop strong relationships with the supply chain, then UK manufacturers can achieve great things.

When Covid struck, Tecman set about revamping its supply line of bespoke solutions using advanced materials to produce lifesaving PPE. Following the rapid development of initial concepts, we were able to repurpose our production line to supply over 20 per cent of UK face shield market demand within a matter of months. Moving swiftly from innovative manufacturing to mass distribution. Across the sector, the distribution of eye protection increased by approximately 17,000 per cent to 8 million units per month, the Department of Health now enjoys significant strategic stockpiles of such equipment.

Trust in UK manufacturing

Tecman was not alone, throughout the UK manufacturers demonstrated what they can do when the pressure is on. Production lines across the country were redeployed to produce ventilators, PPE and other essential equipment. We should heed the lessons learned here and carry this trust forward beyond the pandemic – making the case for UK manufacturing in a post-Brexit Britain.

We all know that much of the challenge for UK companies comes down to price. Tecman have continuously examined how they can keep their price as competitive as possible, especially after the Chinese market opened back up with notoriously low-cost product – often creating a challenging environment for British made products to compete in.

After investing in a state-of-the-art automation technology, continuous improvement in manufacturing efficiencies, smart material sourcing and high-volume manufacturing processes Tecman has been able to increasingly produce entirely British made high performance face shields at prices that compete with imported product from low cost regions, such as China.

This ensures the NHS, care homes and other healthcare providers have access to the highest certified EN 166:2001 category III product at the very best value available, maximising their budgets with quality product and secure supply lines.

Key lessons learned

It’s evident that there has been a total lack of consideration of the effects of PPE on the wearer, this was highlighted during the peak of the pandemic when photos began to circulate of exhausted ICU clinicians with faces scarred from PPE. Healthcare workers should not have to choose between protection and safety and their personal comfort. There has been lack a of innovation in design improvements for the fit and feel, the comfort of the wearer and other aspects which cause inconvenience.

We must maintain agility and flexibility with our supply chains. The pandemic has compounded the importance of local supply chains and the value of relationships over profiteering. As a UK manufacturer, we were well received across the industry due to sourcing all our materials from British manufacturers. This eliminates the roulette of uncertainty with the quality and compliance of imported product, as well as the lack of transparency and traceability of some imported products – including whether labour laws and anti-slavery policies are adhered. With some dubious certification claims, the market can be mine field, especially during times where there is issue with supply or it’s under pressure and, the duty felt within the medical PPE supply chain to ensure flow of products to the front line.

Sustainability in PPE

While we hope that recent vaccine announcements will spell the end of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is likely that we will still require a steady, sustainable supply chain of vital PPE for years to come.With the increased use of PPE set to continue well into 2021, it’s extremely important that we look at more sustainable PPE management, which includes investigating disruptive products and challenging the norms.

With the green revolution, new Government policies for reusable PPE and customer demand for more sustainable products, manufacturers must reduce waste and operate with a ‘green mentality’ wherever possible. It is hugely concerning and difficult for us to observe the increase of single use plastic products, so we have made it our mission help improve this area.

Tecman’s ethos favours the responsible use of plastics and using biomaterials, we aim to reduce environmental impact by investing in and using biodegradable or bio-sourced materials. To this end we are currently developing a reusable face shield system with interchangeable components to suit various requirements from biomaterials to cleanable screens.

To assist this, we have been working with Universities and biomaterial experts to develop sustainably sourced optically clear biomaterial films. It’s not just Tecman who is concerned, during our research, many healthcare professionals have raised concerns about the effect on the environment. In a recent survey about surgical face masks conducted by Tecman, 90 per cent of healthcare professionals who participated said it’s important to replace plastics materials.

Sustainable management of PPE is a topic being discussed at national and global levels. There has been an absence of strategy to manage the waste and increased use of plastic products and these concerns are reflected on the ground through the market research we have been conducting with healthcare professionals. In 2015 the UK signed up to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which includes responsible consumption and production – the current wastage being generated with the increased production and usage of PPE does not align with this. For us at Tecman it’s about doing the right thing for the environment and for generations to come. As material engineers who advocate responsible use of plastic with multiple sustainable, biomaterials in development, we are committed to reducing unnecessary plastics.

UK industry is well prepared to help turn the tide with sustainability. There are some fantastic biomaterials in development right now, and we can see industry forming innovative partnerships with universities whilst research institutions are already producing ground-breaking results. If the Government set UK businesses the challenge along with price objectives to develop materials to help solve environmental issues, that direction would lead to some explosive results in biomaterials and sustainably sourced PPE.

Not losing sight

Not only can we source our PPE needs using UK manufacturing, but we can do it in a way that is safer and more sustainable. As Tecman Managing Director Kevin Porter says, “I believe that the resourcefulness of our manufacturing industry is woefully underestimated. So quick to shine at times of extreme national pressure and yet so easily overlooked when the pressure is off and the country resorts to the “easy win” of low-cost regions. Instead, if UK manufacturing is provided with the opportunities backed by legislation and investment, private sector will invest in design, production facilities and automation to bolster UK manufacturing to a whole new global level.” 

By definition, history repeats itself and the rise and fall of our manufacturing industry is no exception. We are here to prove that we are a true global force and will remain so through continuous innovation, investment and resourcefulness.