The old bus station in Pontardawe is an unlikely place to be at the heart of the current and future NHS mask production. But Brothers Engineering have transformed the premises over a matter of weeks to produce mass, quality, lifesaving masks for our NHS heroes.
Blu Thomas started engineering as an apprentice in the Alloy Industrial estate. He founded Brothers Engineering after being dropped to a 4 day week during the last recession when he felt there was still plenty of work out there. Usually the bulk of the company’s efforts are in manufacturing specialist machinery for the automotive industry but Blu tells me how that changed quickly:-
“Straight away I thought that the automotive industry would be hit first. I tried to get hold of people making ventilators to see whether we could support them with the parts, but I couldn’t really get anywhere with it. Valley Engraving were making visors, Brewdog were making Sanitiser, others were making scrubs but I didn’t see anyone making masks at industrial levels. I looked into the process and the technology side was all the technologies we use on a daily basis; something I totally understand.”
“I contacted the Welsh Assembly who were looking for a company able to make enormous amounts of masks for the NHS. In fairness, in Wales, we did have a good stock of masks heading into the pandemic but they were very aware that more would be needed and the Welsh Government wanted and indigenous supply on their door step.”
“They were a couple of weeks ahead of me in noticing that there was problems harnessing the materials required. They looked and I looked and between us we managed to both get hold of some. We put a plan together, built prototypes, sent our designs to Cardiff University. We noticed that nobody had testing equipment and so we built testing equipment which is now used by the NHS.”
“We put a grant application in which was accepted and we were making masks within 6 weeks. We were the first masks in Wales to be CE stamped which shows that the manufacturers products meet EU safety, health and environmental requirements. We were only the second company in the whole of the UK to meet these standards.”
Not a bad six weeks work but it seems like this has been just the beginning:-
“We are ramping up production. We can reach 5 million masks a month with the currents set-up that we have but have the capabilities to reach 1/2 million a day with 2 more machines.”
This would be a very welcome boost for local jobs “we hope to employ another 20 or 25 when we reach current capacity and maybe 50 more if we were to put in two more machines. We are sadly seeing many other companies making redundancies. Our production and quality manager was made redundant from his previous job, our setters team leader and one of our admin staff were both laid off before coming here. It would be great to be able to employ even more people with good jobs here”
The company has always invested in future skills with apprenticeships, taking on at least one every two years. With high unemployment figures released this week and worst expected, it is the younger generation which seem to be taking the brunt of the job shortages. Rhys Williams and Isaac Humphreys are two young men both grateful for their opportunity.
Rhys, who had been with the company for just over 2 years told me “I feel fortunate to have the job, it is a blessing. I know a lot of people my age who are either looking for work or are on furlough. I sometimes look around out of curiosity to see what work is around and it makes me feel fortunate for what I’ve got.” Isaac, who has been with the company for just less than a year agreed “with all of this coronavirus, I definitely feel fortunate to be here”.
THE QUALITY AND LONG-TERM
One of the issues which every country has faced, has not just been getting masks for Medical Staff but getting quality masks. The newspapers have been full of stories of inadequate PPE equipment and this is something Blu has also been made aware of:-
“We had an email from a lady working in the NHS who was having an allergic reaction to the mask she was wearing. We sent her some of ours to test, she was based in Northumberland. We had an email 2 weeks later saying how much better it was, she had no reaction at all to ours. All materials used are either British or European, the problem with some of the imported masks is that we don’t always know everything which is in them.”
Recently in a BBC news article the head of the Surgical Material Testing Laboratory in Bridgend mentioned how important having local, auditable factories is and specifically mentioned how he can physically go to ‘Pontardawe’ and audit a company but cannot do the same with China manufacturers.
It is comments like this which make Blu believe that this is not a short term business model but something which could last in Pontardawe for many years to come. “Some local companies are making for the public, which is great but we don’t know how long it will last. Hopefully not that long because we hope the virus is gone as soon as possible.”
“We are producing for the NHS specifically because we want to do it for the long-term. The NHS will always need masks and what we are producing is British quality and British tested; a fully British product.”
Blu was very grateful to the Pontardawe community and immediate neighbours for all of the support it had shown:-
“I’d like to add how supportive all of the neighbours and the community have been. There was a day when there were a few lorries here when we were getting set-up but everyone came together for the NHS and supported us really well.”
This project seems a real asset for Pontardawe and obviously to our NHS. It was a real insight visiting the site, seeing the scale of the machinery and the workforce there. Incredibly clever and talented people in a wide range of skills, to be able to build machinery to transform its output in a matter of weeks. I’d like to thank Blu and the team for their time and hope to see even further local employment there soon.