In early March, the directors of London-based boutique liquor brand 58 Gin called an emergency meeting to discuss the future of their company.
With short-notice government lockdown policies causing every bar in the UK shut its doors, the primary market for their hand-crafted gin had instantly vanished.
“We suddenly had a business with no customers or income – and if we didn’t do something, and do it very, very quickly, we’d also have no business,” explains the distillery's managing director Carmen O'Neal. “How do we keep our business running? How do we save the team’s jobs?”
If we didn’t do something, and do it very, very quickly, we’d also have no business – Carmen O'Neal
The team made a quick and novel decision: they would stop distilling small-batch gin and instead start producing large-batch hand sanitiser – dubbed ‘Hand Gin-itizer’ – to aid in the battle against Covid-19.
“We’d stopped gin production within hours of the Prime Minister’s announcement, and were working through the finer details of the World Health Organization guidance on formulations to create an effective hand sanitiser,” said O'Neal.
Once the threat of sudden financial ruin eased, the actual process of making sanitiser rather than gin proved far less of a nightmare. “We follow the gin-making process in terms of purifying, then boiling the water in our 450-litre copper still. But instead of adding botanicals to make gin, we add a blend of ethanol, glycerol, hydrogen peroxide and essential oils,” explains O'Neal. The company uses Intermediate Bulk Containers (IBCs) to prevent any permanent contamination of the still by sanitiser chemicals.
Key ingredients for gin also turn out to be handy for hand sanitiser, too. “Because we already had a supply of alcohol at the distillery, we were able to denature this [alcohol] for making hand sanitiser,” says O'Neal. (Denaturing – rendering the alcohol to make it unfit for human consumption – is a legal requirement.) “This has been massively useful, as demand for denatured alcohol has spiked since the coronavirus outbreak.” Note that simply pouring gin over your hands won't work, as sanitisers require at least 60% alcohol concentration, far above the 40% spirits standard.
The artisanal gin-maker is just one of an array of companies worldwide suddenly shifting to battle the current pandemic. Vacuum-maker Dyson has taken an order of 10,000 ventilators from the UK government, swapping from making machines that suck to ones that blow. Even the Royal Mint is making plastic visors for UK healthcare staff.
In France, luxury goods maker LVMH is using facilities normally making high-end perfumes and cosmetics for Christian Dior, Guerlain and Givenchy for sweet-smelling Gallic sanitiser. In Japan, electronics giant Sharp has adapted existing clean-room production facilities for LCD display panels to make 150,000 surgical masks a day. And in China, car maker SGMW – a joint venture between US giant General Motors and two Chinese partners – began producing face masks in February using medical-grade textiles from a supplier previously providing interior textile for cars.
Companies are repurposing their production lines for a number of reasons. In the US, the government has invoked the Defense Production Act to compel some companies like GM to make ventilators. But the majority of companies that have switched production have done so willingly, to maintain some output and revenues when regular orders dry up. Add in the boost of being able to say they are genuinely helping a wider social battle, with the chance to earn reputational credits for doing so.
Production of simple hygiene and protection products can often be relatively easy, with firms adapting equipment, carrying out basic research and design, then producing face masks or hand sanitiser within days.
Take Britain's Wales-based Royal Mint, which started producing plastic visors for health workers in late March, in addition to the coins and precious metal investment products it is known for.
In the short time since switching production, the Mint has produced 30,000 visors. “A week ago we knew nothing about visors, and now we’re making one every 10 seconds,” says Leighton John, director of operations at the Royal Mint. “That’s pretty incredible.”
Rising to the challenge tapped the engineers' inherent problem-solving abilities, John says. “We set the task and within 48 hours they’d developed a design which could be mass-produced, and began testing it for NHS use.”
Something like a clear plastic mask can go from design to production in days, but more complex parts can also be made at short notice, thanks to 21st Century industries using things like advanced digital design and 3D printing technology.
One manufacturing firm using this technology is Minnesota-based Protolabs, which makes custom parts for prototyping and short-run production. “We made 10,000 parts over the weekend for Covid-19 test kits,” said CEO Vicki Holt in a March 23 interview. “And we've got several hospitals looking to us to build face shields – we're talking hundreds of thousands of those to get out quickly.”
Advanced digital design and 3D printing technology make rapid product-switching feasible
For an operation like Protolabs, producing 10,000 parts at short notice is not out of the norm, says Protolabs spokesperson Sarah Ekenberg. “Our sweet spot is between one part and 100,000 parts. It just depends on what the project needs are.”
Other urgent virus-related products on the Protolabs order book include 50,000 clips to attach to paediatric face masks, sheet metal components for automated Covid-19 lab test equipment, and 25 different moulds for ventilator production. “University of Minnesota medical doctors also reached out to quickly manufacture six different prototype components for their low-cost ventilator in order to accelerate its FDA [US Food and Drug Administration] approval and quickly get to mass production,” says Ekenberg.
Such drastic production changes aren’t without their hurdles, however.
Sourcing suddenly scarce materials is one issue. Althought the Royal Mint’s engineers quickly created a design for a visor, getting hold of the 1mm PET clear plastic used in the visors proved an initial hurdle. “A lot of companies came forward, and we are now working with the supply chain to ensure we have enough components to make as many visors as needed,” says Mint spokesperson Carly O'Donnell.
Even after sorting out design and production, getting necessary regulatory approval for some products is another challenge. For example, past medical scandals – such as bursting French-made breast implants in 2010 – led the European Union to plan strict new regulatory requirements for medical devices due to come into force in May as the EU Medical Device Regulation. But European lawmakers are now seeking a rush postponement of the legislation to ease the path into service for emergency medical technology during the pandemic.
In the UK, the MHRA (Medical and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) has published details of 'minimally acceptable' ventilator designs, while also creating an exemptions policy to allow fast-track approval of medical devices during the Covid-19 outbreak. HMRC, who oversee UK customs regulations, are also fast-tracking applications to make products such as denatured alcohol for hand sanitisers.
An open-source future?
With pressure for companies to share design information across business sectors, intellectual property issues are another hurdle the Covid-19 outbreak has seen put aside. In the UK, for example, organisations such as Engineers For Doctors and the Royal Academy of Engineering are sharing resources and open-source tools to help businesses make vital healthcare products.
Some say the urgency and scale of the Covid-19 response could change the way collaboration is done in future.
“In other crises – such as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster – open-source devices played a crucial role in changing policies for relocating people and saved lives. This one is no different," said David Cleevely, a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. "But with the Covid-19 response, we will see a change in gear. We have technologies now that we did not have 20 years ago: we are better equipped to share information, data and designs, and manufacturing technology, computing and software developments mean we can make things more quickly and simply."
Technical innovation and collaboration will move forward in a significantly different way, says John Lazar, chairman of Enza Capital and fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. "Many of the rapid Covid-19 innovations have already spread far and wide – a great example being the UCL-Ventura Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) design – and people have become far more accustomed to sensible open licensing [and] collaborative networks which will cement new modes of working.”
If any business is able to help produce much-needed supplies during these difficult times, it can only be a good thing, says 58 Gin's Carmen O'Neal. “For us, it was a choice of switching production or going out of business. If we can survive by making a product that people genuinely need, whilst donating a proportion of sales to a charity, I can’t tell you just how relieved and pleased the whole team will be. And we’ve been happy to share our experiences to help others create effective hand sanitisers.”
Once the pandemic eases, it should also be relatively easy to go back to making gin, too. “Once we’ve finished making the Hand Gin-itizer, we’ll be able to find other companies that can make use of the IBCs,” says O'Neal. “We’ll give the distillery a deep-clean – but this would be no different to what we normally do.
“We’re all obsessive when it comes to looking after our copper still.”