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Toyota R&D vital in local COVID response

Medical supplies scale up as Toyota shows design, production expertise still strong

19 May 2020

TOYOTA Australia is expanding its role in developing personal protective equipment (PPE) to assist frontline workers in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, building a stronger supply line for its face shields that can produce up to 25,000 units a day and moving quickly towards clinical trials for a locally designed hyperbaric hood for patients in intensive care.


The Australian arm of the Japanese auto giant has channelled significant resources into the medical emergency, amplifying not only its corporate social responsibility initiatives but also its specialist product design and development division that remains a hive of activity more than two-and-a-half years after Toyota closed its local vehicle manufacturing operations.


This product planning and development (PP&D) unit based in Port Melbourne quietly goes about its business with often top-secret support roles in global model programs, local accessories and components, start-up companies such as TomCar all-terrain vehicles and various community services outside automotive, from patient ‘journey boards’ in hospitals to specialist kayaks and wheelchairs for Paralympians.


In an interview with GoAuto, Toyota Australia’s manager of technical services, prototyping and operations, Cameron Brimelow, said the switch to specific measures to support the current health crisis was familiar territory for the company, which still has strong ties with local auto component manufacturers and other suppliers that it has leaned upon to scale up its initial commitment of 2000 face shields (donated free of charge) and to move into other areas like the hyperbaric hood.


Mr Brimelow is a member of the COVID-19 taskforce 3D Emergency Medical Equipment (3DEME), which was set up to connect medical services with industry and respond quickly to equipment shortages.


He said the PP&D team specifically designed and developed the face shield locally to ensure it met Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) guidelines, satisfied the requirements of hospital staff (done through widespread field testing), and could be easily scaled up in production terms.


“We came up with a more innovative design that meant we could utilise equipment in-house,” he said, pointing to the need to respond quickly to the dramatic shortfall in supply identified early on by federal government agencies.


This was done in conjunction with Toyota’s Production System Support Centre, known as TSSC Australia, although as PPE orders increase on a weekly basis and volume requirements expand, Mr Brimelow said production would move outside the company.


“Our direction is more to do with using our smarts, I suppose, using our R&D, our production expertise, and then work with our local suppliers to get that capability back into the country,” he said.


“Toyota will keep supporting (the response effort) and making these as long as there is a demand. The important factor is that we can scale up very quickly if the need arises.


“In-house, we have our own CNC router and we can cut out (a face shield) at about one a minute … but by changing that process to a punching process we can go to something like 25,000 a day through a supplier. And then it’s just a matter of scaling up the production people to support the assembly of that.


“It’s not confirmed, but that’s the capacity that our suppliers can work to.”


Toyota’s development of the hyperbaric hood, which provides pressurised oxygen therapy for the patient and protects attending medical staff from contamination, has taken longer given its complexity, but Mr Brimelow said the company was moving towards clinical trial stage.


He also said the hyperbaric hood would be of long-term benefit for the medical community, extending beyond the current pandemic, and that Toyota was partnering with two or three other companies – which remain undisclosed for now – “to facilitate the longer-term viability of local manufacture”.


Mr Brimelow said it was too early to specify production volume, and that although these are specialist devices that are only used by a few hospitals in each state, there is a high level of national interest and export potential also figures in the equation.


“They want to improve this (hood design) for the COVID situation, but there’s also demand beyond COVID for these types of devices,” he said.


“We’ve done a fair bit of CAD development, made a couple of in-house prototypes and we’re working with our partners now to see how we can get that approved through the TGA, how we do clinical trials and how we can manufacture that locally.


“The hope is that we can utilise Toyota for the design and prototyping, and then kick that off with local companies who can produce these longer term.


“It’s fair to say this COVID crisis has created a new realisation that we’re very dependent on other countries for medical supplies and equipment, and I think there’s a greater realisation of (the need for) localisation for our own sovereignty.


“So having a local design and being able to manufacture these locally, there is a very strong interest both from the local hospitals and also government discussions.”


Non-disclosure agreements are in place, preventing Mr Brimelow from naming the local companies involved, but when asked whether the partners were automotive suppliers, he said: “Some of those companies have supported automotive in the past, that’s how we’ve known them, and some of them are companies we haven’t dealt with before.


“The automotive (industry) has produced some really good skillsets and there’s a lot of good people who have come out of automotive that have skills there.”


Unusually for Toyota, which runs a tightly controlled an intricately managed business, the costs involved with its pandemic response initiatives are not easily defined given the urgent need to set the various programs in place.


But Mr Brimelow said the response was overwhelmingly positive and that offers of volunteer work from staff across the company and a variety of outside sources, had flooded in.


“There was no shortage of people willing to help,” he said. “A lot of support, not just within Toyota but through the networks people were offering to help – and share the ideas, too, like in terms of collaborative ideas.


“There has never been (a sense that) ‘this idea is ours’ – it’s more about: ‘How can we collaborate? How can we provide a response?’”


Even though Toyota no longer builds cars, the company had not let go its entire design, engineering and production management workforce, and Mr Brimelow said the COVID response demonstrated that the expertise was still there, ready to be deployed in areas outside automotive.


He also said the team is growing and attracting top talent who are working on a combination of local and international programs.


A particular area of focus is on the Thai-developed, Australian-market HiLux. 


“It’s a longer story to go into automotive and (why we are) not making cars here. I’ve got personal views on that, but it’s good that we still have design capacity, we’ve got the know-how to set up production lines … and the guys are just genius on that, how they’ve got the (mask production) time down so quickly,” he said.


“We’re not making cars in the country anymore, but, in Toyota at least, we’re designing a lot more locally than we ever have.


“We’ve got world-class designers, engineers. It’s my dream job with all the ‘toys’ that we’ve got here … we’ve got some really good skills, we’ve got the right equipment, we do global projects, we do local accessories.


“But we’ve also started, and this is not so well known, is that we do other projects with other industries. There’s been a couple of Paralympians that we’ve supported, we’ve done RV projects, hospital support, where we do these projects still using that (automotive) design and know-how.


“For me, that’s very exciting that that still goes on and that we can add value out there in the community, sharing the knowledge from our rich knowledge of automotive design and production.


“I think that still lives on.”

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