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Premcar to team up with Walkinshaw to fight COVID-19

Changing tack: Premcar has put its hand up to assist Walkinshaw in producing medical supplies.

Manufacturing operation puts Premcar in position to help produce medical supplies

27 Mar 2020

AUSTRALIAN manufacturing and engineering firm Premcar is teaming up with Walkinshaw Automotive Group to use its production capabilities to help produce medical equipment to fight the rising threat of the COVID-19 virus.


Speaking exclusively to GoAuto, Premcar engineering director Bernie Quinn said the company was assisting Walkinshaw, who are taking the lead in liaising with governments and organising the production of medical equipment.


“Ryan and I are talking about us supporting them with their initiative to look at manufacturing a type of ventilator to support the bow wave of people needing this type of care that could happen,” he said.


“Ryan reached out to me initially – I’ve got some contacts back in the UK that can support this program and in those initial discussions with Ryan, we really agreed for us to support him to bring this thing to market.”


Mr Quinn said Premcar would be able to assist by manufacturing parts using 3D printers, with existing designs in the UK able to be modified.


“We can do (3D printing) and so can Walkinshaw, 3D printing process is a relatively slow process, so the more 3D printers you can have operating at any one time, the more parts you’re going to make, so I think we can both contribute in that respect.


“Where we come in is we’ve got a good supply network who are used to making precision machines, and made components, so we’d bring that to the table.


“Then of course we’ve got very regimented and high-quality assembly of the products so that’s where I’m seeing we have a lot of capability as well.”


He said that currently, the greatest roadblock to achieving medical equipment production would be certification of medical equipment, which under normal circumstances would require extensive testing over a long period of time to ensure a sufficient level of quality.


Bypassing those rigorous testing protocols would require assistance from the government, which is being handled by Walkinshaw.


Mr Quinn said the circumstances that led to Premcar teaming up with Walkinshaw started when the company began looking abroad at the operations of its parent company RLE International, which has offices in multiple global locations including China and Spain, which were hit by the COVID-19 pandemic earlier than Australia.


Initially Premcar was looking at ways to implement social distancing and other responsible workplace practices, but then began discussing ways in which it could assist in the unfolding crisis.


“In those discussions came up, ‘what else can we do?’,” he said.


“Where are the ways we can use our engineering workforce to design something like a ventilator, and just at that point Ryan contacted me specifically to get in contact with Prodrive in the UK.


“They are doing a similar thing, looking to make a ventilator with UK government support. So I established that contact on behalf of Ryan, but then said it makes a lot of sense for us to support this endeavour, and he said absolutely.”


When asked whether Premcar was well-equipped to make the switch to manufacturing medical equipment, Mr Quinn said the company has the fundamental structure and framework to do it, however the real challenge was being able to make parts quickly enough to make a meaningful difference while receiving government support on the project.


Mr Quinn was confident that Premcar would be able to manufacture medical equipment while still producing Navara N-Trek Warrior pick-ups for Nissan, however he conceded that while it was too early to say for sure, production of the Warriors – which peaks at 13 vehicles per day – would probably have to be reduced.


As for how COVID-19 is affecting Premcar’s business, Mr Quinn said the factory was still operational however it presented a multitude of problems, including operating the production line which under normal circumstances often has two or more people at each station.


Production facility workers have also begun instituting staggered shift times to avoid multiple people gathering in the same place at once, while kitchen and break areas have seen restrictions to the number of people in attendance.


While continuing to operate out of its facility in Epping on the outskirts of Melbourne, Mr Quinn acknowledged that a shutdown was likely at some point.


“I think what’s going to happen is some sort of shutdown seems inevitable, and that we will definitely abide by those directions from the state or federal government,” he said.


He added that Premcar has been consulting with its accounting department to figure out the best course of action for the employees and the business.


“We’ve gone well and truly beyond the fair work guidelines to make sure people have got enough money to survive at least in the short term, but of course that’s not an open cheque book, for want of a better term,” he said.


“There’s two main objectives. Keep the people healthy and safe is number one.


“Number two is make sure that we’ve got a business to come back to and that we can contribute to people’s lives when this is all over, and help them pay their mortgages and put their kids through school.”


Premcar’s business primarily revolves around two operations – manufacturing and engineering – with the manufacturing staff likely to face a temporary, forced standing down.


“The situation as I see it is we’ll temporarily stand down employees in the event of a shutdown on the production side.


“Our engineering team we are planning to maintain employment through the shutdown from home.”


The engineering team makes up roughly 65-70 per cent of the overall workforce, while no forced layoffs have yet to be put in place.


Stood down employees will be paid at a percentage of their salary for a period of time, after which they will be asked to draw upon annual leave and depending on the length of the shutdown, may have to apply for Centrelink benefits.


When asked how well positioned Premcar was to deal with an eventual shutdown, Mr Quinn said the business was in good shape but it depended completely on the length of the closure.


“We had this discussion with our accountants, and they advised us we are in a much better position than the majority of the businesses they are talking to, however it depends on how long the crisis goes for,” he said.


“Nobody can really predict exactly how long that will be, and nobody can plan their financial outlays around an open-ended situation like that.


“If it goes for a couple of weeks, we should be able to pull through. If it goes for four weeks, marginal. If it goes for three months, everyone’s in a lot of trouble and I think things have to change.”

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