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Making medical supplies a big leap for Aussie auto sector

Stepping up: Chinese car-maker BYD has started making face masks and bottling disinfectant to help reduce supply shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic but there are questions over the ability of Australia’s auto sector to follow suit.

Coronavirus: Local automotive parts-makers may struggle to produce medical supplies

20 Mar 2020

OVERSEAS automotive manufacturers have turned to medical equipment production so they can mitigate shortages emerging from the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, but this does not appear to be an opportunity or requirement for Australian component manufacturers as the federal government calls for tenders.


The AusTender website published a request for information (RFI) on March 15 “seeking information on domestic production capabilities relevant to a range of medical PPE (personal protective equipment), including surgical gowns, gloves, goggles, hand sanitisers, clinical waste bags, waste bag closure devices (ties), blood and fluid spill kits, mask fit test kits and thermometers”.


Australian Automotive Aftermarket Association (AAAA) chief executive Stuart Charity told GoAuto the organisation had a “capability directory” of members that manufacture and export, which would be mined to identify businesses that may qualify.


“We’ll go searching through that to see what capabilities are out there and alert those businesses that may be able to redirect some manufacturing expertise to that tender,” Mr Charity said.


However, he did not expect the AAAA database to turn up significant opportunities among members.


“My immediate gut feel is that there’s not going to be huge opportunities, but we’ve got a pretty diverse membership in quite a lot of different areas, so there might be some capability out there,” he said.


“On the surface it doesn’t look like a huge amount of overlap; we have a huge amount of precision engineering and metal-based products whereas those (in the RFI) are primarily paper or rubberised products requiring pretty specialised equipment.”


An Australian manufacturer approached by GoAuto that did not want to be named said it was difficult to ascertain whether the business would be a good fit for the RFI and struggled to see the “level of value-add” they would yield after acquiring the necessary raw materials.


Similarly, Mr Charity said the precision manufacturing capability among some AAAA members could be more suited to medical devices than consumables, but that these would “take some time and run-up”.


“It didn’t look like a lot on that tender process list applies,” he added.


Asked to indicate the level of automotive industry participation in the RFI, a spokesperson from the federal department of industry, science, energy and resources told GoAuto that details of responses were “commercial in confidence”.


“We are unable to share details of the responses, including which industries they are from,” said the spokesperson, adding that the number of participants, automotive or otherwise, remained a moving target due to the RFI deadline of March 31 not yet being reached.


Global efforts to repurpose manufacturing facilities amid unprecedented demand for medical equipment and supplies in the wake of an escalating COVID-19 crisis has been likened to wartime measures.


In China, electric vehicle specialist BYD has switched to producing face masks and disinfectant at two of its factories, with state-owned car-maker Guangzhou Automobile Group dispatching workers to mask factories for training and acquiring its own mask-making equipment and General Motors joint venture SAIC-GM-Wuling building its own machinery to establish 14 mask production lines.


The British government has asked Rolls-Royce, Jaguar Land Rover and Airbus to help design, make and distribute medical ventilators, along with other automotive manufacturers operating in the UK such as BMW, Ford, Honda, Nissan, Toyota and Vauxhall.


In the United States, Ford and General Motors have reportedly been in preliminary discussions with the White House about supporting the production of ventilators against a backdrop of widespread pandemic-related shutdowns among US automotive manufacturers that will have plants idled until at least March 30.


Closer to home, a number of Australian Defence Force personnel have been deployed to help medical consumables manufacturer Med-Con increase production of face masks at its plant in the Victorian country town of Shepparton, while Melbourne-based fruit juice manufacturer Food Revolution Group has begun bottling hand sanitiser.


Across other industries and countries, Foxconn – known for assembling and making parts for Apple iPhones and iPads, Amazon Kindle e-renders and Sony PlayStation games consoles – is also stepping in to make masks. Chinese petrochemical group Sinopec has also set up 11 face mask production lines.


Luxury goods conglomerate LVMH is repurposing perfume production lines in France to make hand sanitiser, while Spanish fashion brand Zara has offered to produce hospital scrubs and others such as H&M have made donations.


An Italian 3D printing company has also made emergency batches of respirator valves after hospital stocks ran out.

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