Lemnos mask maker hires local staff and commissions Echuca machines

Australia’s only mask manufacturing company, Med-Con, near Shepparton, has hired 18 new staff from Greater Shepparton and is set to hire 11 more as the company started 24-hour production yesterday.

Med-Con's latest hiring blitz will bring the total staff to 35 — up from 15 just 10 days ago.

The Lemnos-based company has also commissioned three new mask-making machines from a company in Echuca, providing a much-needed boost for local industry amid the coronavirus-driven market downturn.

Med-Con has been running two mask machines full pelt since the army was called in to help meet the Federal Government’s demand for 50 million masks earlier in March.

Operations manager Ray Stockwell said with the army’s role in training staff, making technical drawings and fixing machinery almost complete, soldiers would be leaving Med-Con on April 6, making way for new recruits.

“They’re brilliant, they’ve been so helpful,” he said,

“We really can’t be more complimentary about them.”

Mr Stockwell said the company's third mask-making machine was undergoing maintenance, but would be operational in the next few days, boosting the company’s production capacity to 135 000 masks a day.

He said Med-Con had ordered three new machines from Echuca-based specialised machinery company, Foodmach, in a bid to double Med-Con's production of masks in the coming months.

“They’re reverse engineering the designs for the machines we’ve drawn up here with the help of the army,” he said.

“The first machine will be ready in eight weeks, the second in 10 and the third in 12.”

Foodmach chief executive Earle Roberts said with the downturn in the market, the much-needed machines would be a boon to the company’s 100 employees, 65 of whom were in Echuca.

“Typically when there’s a market downturn, business slows down, so this project assists us in keeping our staff busy and employed,” he said.

“Very large multi-national engineering suppliers would usually take up this sort of job, but we can pretty much do everything in-house.”

Mr Roberts said with very few manufacturing companies like Foodmach left in Australia, the work would help the company avoid laying off staff.

He said it would also potentially open the company up to larger international demand for machine manufacturing.

“We’ll work 24-seven as required to make the machines, first in design, then in parts manufacture, assembly and lastly in electrical control to fire up the machines,” he said.

Mr Stockwell said while Med-Con was working on the Federal Government’s monumental mask order, the Victorian Government had also requested one million masks as "a first order".

“Once we get into the full swing of things, other state governments will want to buy in,” he said.

Although business is booming at Med-Con, Mr Stockwell said sourcing materials such as filters for the masks had been a “logistical nightmare".

“Some countries have closed their borders and trading is an issue because planes aren’t flying,” he said.

“We’ve had to charter our own planes.

“Taiwan’s closed its borders, China is only supplying internally and Turkey and US might close their borders very soon.”

Mr Stockwell said Greater Shepparton City Council had been on board with Med-Con’s plan to extend the factory in order to fit in the three new machines.

“We’re probably looking at doubling our production spaces, also increasing our warehousing by 50 per cent,” he said.

“I’ll be disappointed if it’s not done in the coming months; 12 months is not a figure in my vocabulary.”

Med-Con has a government contract to manufacture masks until November, with most new recruits hired as casuals.

The future 11 staff will be hired strictly from the Greater Shepparton region.

The latest move to 24-hour production from two eight-hour shifts was necessary to meet the demand for new masks, Mr Stockwell said.

As the number of cases of coronavirus climbed to 821 in Victoria on Monday, prompting stricter stage three restrictions, Mr Stockwell said Med-Con was taking measures to ensure staff safety.

“Everyone is getting health checked as they come in and we’re limiting access to non-essential people,” he said.

“Trying to do what we’ve done in three weeks has been very difficult; but the Department of Industry as well as state and local governments have been great.”