Defence has applied its engineering expertise to rapidly design and support the production of face shields to protect healthcare workers.

As part of Defence’s contribution to the whole-of-government response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Defence Science and Technology (DST) moved swiftly from the initial concept stage through to enabling mass manufacturing capability in just three weeks.

Ben Barona, Program Leader Research Engineering within DST’s Research Services Division, said public servants were asked to focus their efforts on Australia’s coronavirus response, so DST came up with a plan to produce face shields domestically.

“We often need to rapidly respond to Defence and national security challenges by generating engineering solutions, and we’ve used the same approach to help get protective equipment to frontline healthcare staff,” Mr Barona said.

The first step was for engineers based at DST Edinburgh in Adelaide to engage with South Australian hospitals to better understand their personal protective equipment (PPE) needs. The engineering team also looked at similar projects in other parts of the world.

After considering a range of existing face shield designs, DST used its advanced 3D-printing capability to make prototypes that were distributed to hospitals for evaluation. The feedback enabled the Defence engineers to confidently push ahead with their own lightweight design.

When user feedback revealed the elastic straps used in other designs could be a source of virus transmission when the face shields were worn for long periods, the mechanical engineers were tasked with designing a shield without them.

“We came up with a design that didn’t rely on elastic, and hence was a lot easier to disinfect and reuse,” Mr Barona said.

Axiom Precision Manufacturing, which is accredited to produce medical devices and has previously worked in partnership with Defence on other projects, is manufacturing the face shield components using plastic injection moulding.

Axiom is capable of producing two face shield headbands in 40 seconds. The company is aiming to manufacture about 1000 components each day, but this rate could increase as the production process matures.

The first batch of 600 has already been delivered to SA Health.

Mr Barona said the way Defence and its industry supply chain responded so quickly was impressive and reassuring.

“The pandemic has changed the way we look at our reliance on other countries for imports,” he said. “The outcome is that we’ve demonstrated that Australia can produce its own personal protective equipment to protect ourselves in all sorts of situations.

“I’m also passionate about supporting the Australian manufacturers and keeping jobs in Australia, and these face shields are one example of a commercially viable product for local manufacturers.”