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Ex-Toyota engineer fights the good fight

Mat Bowtell draws on his expertise from Toyota to make face shields for Australia

21 Apr 2020

FORMER Toyota Australia industrial engineer Mat Bowtell has responded to the escalating coronavirus pandemic by diverting resources at his internationally recognised Victorian-based charity, Free 3D Hands, to produce face shields for medical staff and other frontline workers.


Just as he has applied the principles of lean manufacturing and low-cost production through the use of 3D printing to create functional hands and other assistive devices for people born with congenital limb differences – free of charge – after being made redundant in 2017 with the closure of Toyota’s car-making operations, Mr Bowtell has again drawn on his altruistic nature, automotive industry expertise and a strong grassroots support base to set up production lines that from late last week had ramped up to 100 face shields a day.


Using primarily local materials and an open-source design from Prusa in the Czech Republic that he modified to provide additional protection and comfort after prototype testing with infection-control staff at the nearby Wonthaggi hospital, Mr Bowtell has quickly developed the face shield and the repurposed lines are now operating from 8am to 10pm, seven days a week, out of his small factory in the Cowes industrial estate on Phillip Island.


Some 450 early examples are already in service – at hospitals, nursing homes, supermarkets and police stations – and a further 300 are ready for dispatch after their three-day quarantine period. The initial target is 2000 face shields over a four-week period, with another 2000 set to follow over a slightly shorter timeframe.


They are produced using 22 3D printers and with a budget of around $45,000 that provides for two workers from the local community who had been stood down from other businesses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Some $33,000 of this has come through crowdfunding and the rest out of Mr Bowtell’s own pocket, with government funding hopefully coming through soon to offset his personal outlay.


This new cost burden is clearly a concern for the 39-year-old father-of-two, who has spent much of the past two years using his redundancy package to establish the family-run Free 3D Hands – as a full-time volunteer – to the point where it finally became a registered charity in May last year, although he has relied on a corporate sponsorship and speaking engagements (the latter now on hold) to avoid drawing a wage from personal donations.


He has eight printers still running to continue making his special hands, and work continues on a low-cost bionic arm he is developing, but Mr Bowtell is consumed by this new challenge with COVID-19 and finds himself again applying skills he learnt from his 10 years as a senior engineer at Toyota.


At the Japanese auto giant, he spent almost a year on assignment in 2009 studying lean manufacturing techniques – the heart of the Toyota Production System (TPS) – at the Motomachi plant in Japan and then returned to Australia to share and apply these ‘kaizen’ learnings in Supplier Development, helping local component-makers such as OzPress, Metalsa, MHG Glass, VDMG and APV improve processes, reduce waste and improve quality.


He then spent the final three years introducing 3D printing through Toyota Australia’s production departments – the assembly plant, weld shop, unit parts, powertrain, etc – which led to the implementation of lower-cost, but more precise and efficient, solutions.


This bolstered the Altona plant’s status as one of the best in the Toyota world – and which makes its closure even more heartbreaking for those, including Mr Bowtell, who still believe in the value of local manufacturing and point to the current pandemic as evidence of the industry’s worth.


Likening his current frenetic operations to the intensity of a new-model changeover at Toyota Australia (“holding meetings while walking”), Mr Bowtell said there were “direct applications to what we are trying to do here”.


“We were able to completely revamp our production lines from making hands to face shields in a number of days,” he said. “We were able to skip the tooling process altogether, and are continuously making design improvements based on customer feedback.


“3D printing really does open up a lot of opportunities and has allowed us to be very agile, whereas with press tooling suppliers if you needed to modify a tool it was always very expensive with long lead times.


“Process improvement was a massive part of my job at Toyota, and supporting suppliers, and then after it was announced in February 2014 that we, with Holden and Ford, would all be closing our doors by the end of 2017, for me during this time I really wanted to focus on maintaining a positive mindset and trying to find a way that I could use my engineering skills to help others,” he said.


Walking out the main gate at Altona for the last time, Mr Bowtell – who had plenty of offers to remain in the industry and today maintains a positive relationship with Toyota – no longer saw himself as simply an auto engineer but an innovator who could develop assistive devices at a fraction of the cost, and encourage others to innovate, to make them accessible to those who cannot currently access or afford them.


“Fred Hollows and Nikola Tesla have been big inspirations for me, driven by purpose and not by money,” he said.


His Kinetic Finger, for example, the design for which is freely available online, costs about 90 cents to 3D print, yet is equivalent to a commercial product worth $6500. The hands cost $8 or less and the multifunction bionic arm currently at prototype stage will be the equivalent of a circa-$40,000 unit but produced in Cowes for less than $100 in parts to allow them to be provided for free.


“We send our 3D printed hands to people all over the world completely free of charge, we even pay the postage, and I just have this fundamental belief that people born without arms or hands shouldn’t have to pay even one cent for something that’s going to improve their quality of life,” he said.


“As a society, we have a responsibility to ensure that all people come along on the journey.


“And from a personal perspective, if I was going to sell it for even $10, whether it is a hand or a face shield, to me it would only be worth $10. But if you give it away free of charge, with no expectation of reward, it becomes priceless.


“That mindset has really helped me through not only the last two years, but the last four or five years since the (Toyota closure) announcement. I’ve just never been better. I’ve been full of gratitude for life and just focused on helping people in any way that I can with the engineering skills that I’ve got, and it’s just completely changed my life.


“I’m also grateful that I had the opportunity through Toyota to find my true passion as an engineer.”


This passion is plain for all to see with his reaction to the COVID crisis, responding immediately to news of Australia’s shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) and the federal government’s call for manufacturers to get involved.


“The government was calling for 10 million face shields!” he said. “Ten million! And I thought, we’ve got more than 20 3D printers upstairs that can be easily reconfigured to make face shields.”


With encouragement from the Therapeutic Goods Administration but without initial assurance of government funding, Mr Bowtell acted quickly to secure custom-developed Australian-made 3D printer filament from Aurarum in Knoxfield, east of Melbourne, and other materials from across the country.


“I just realised from my experience working with suppliers that raw material pipelines could dry up very quickly,” he said.


“We couldn’t use funds from our charity to purchase the materials – they are donations for making hands, not face shields – so I used $14,000 of my first-home deposit savings that we had there, and as it turns out in hindsight that was the best decision I made because two days later we were told that the some raw materials would have disappeared.


“Little things like buttonhole elastic, it’s been really, really hard to get that and we’ve had to get it from multiple suppliers from all over Australia, needing to continuously modify our design to suit. The PET-G polyethylene glycol plastic sheets for the visors that we needed to get laser-cut were the most difficult to source, but we were luckily able to get enough to make up to 4000 units.


“I was risking sleeping in the car, I suppose, if we weren’t able to get the money back. But the kind and generous people of Australia donated towards the campaign to allow us to recover the materials expenses, which was really heart-warming, so we covered those costs and we’re now hopeful that the Victorian government, though Health Purchasing Victoria, will cover our manufacturing and labour costs moving forward.”


The taxpayer funding will require face shields go to Victorian public hospitals, but the crowdsourced money already raised enables Mr Bowtell to ensure they also get to other frontline workers – at no charge.


“In essence, I don’t believe that any essential service should have to find extra money in their already stretched budgets to pay for additional PPE to keep their workers safe during this crisis,” he said.


“I was quite upset with the ‘toilet paper hoarding to sell on eBay’ that happened recently, and I wanted to show Australians that as a nation we are better than this.


“We’re supplying supermarkets, petrol stations, private nursing homes, police stations in Wonthaggi and Inverloch; we’re also sending them out of the state, from COVID-19 testing facilities in Cairns to a remote health service in Katherine that are attending to 5000 indigenous Australians who are vulnerable to catching the virus.


“So it’s been great that we’ve been able to go beyond the scope of just hospitals because we have equally important frontline workers looking after us in so many different areas, whether you’re stocking shelves in a supermarket or looking after the elderly.


“To be able to contribute towards that, it gives me a lot of joy and I just love being part of the solution. It is also way that I can say thanks to those who continue to serve us in the community.


“I’ve worked pretty much three weeks straight, which is very reminiscent of the model launch days at Toyota, so I’m well trained.”


Going beyond 4000 face shields is contingent on raw materials supply, with Mr Bowtell creating a value stream map (VSM) – as he did at Toyota to help suppliers identify bottlenecks in their processes – to track commodities being shipped to Australia from China, some of which have lead times of eight weeks in normal circumstances, let alone a global health pandemic in full flight.


“We will continue manufacturing as long as we can get the materials – or as long as needed,” he said.


“It’s really highlighted to us just how reliant we are on China and manufacturing overseas, and I’m really hoping this is really going to expose the issues we have and bring manufacturing back to Australia.


“I think our government really needs to not only look at the bottom line as being in dollars and cents. As a matter of national security, we need to have the capability in Australia to manufacture essential products, especially things like medical devices and PPE.


“We really need to go back to local manufacturing in a big way.”

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