An Irish entrepreneur has developed an unconventional way of producing protective aprons for healthcare staff tackling coronavirus.
Limerick-based Sean O’Carroll is using machines designed for cutting corrugated paper to make the heavy-duty polythene aprons.
Mr O’Carroll’s background is in supply and distribution and he had never been involved in manufacturing before he decided to try the unorthodox method to produce the PPE aprons.
Millions of aprons have been shipped to Ireland from China during the pandemic but medics have raised concerns that some of the imported products were too thin and not robust enough for working on the front line.
From a standing start, Mr O’Carroll’s company, IPS Packaging, is now producing 1.6 million aprons a week for healthcare staff and other workplaces.
Such is the demand for the Irish-made PPE, the production line is running seven days a week and the company’s workforce has more than doubled.
“In the early days of the lockdown we got a request to supply a suite of products, three of which sat into our company nicely, but the fourth was PPE disposable aprons which no-one was manufacturing in Ireland at the time,” said Mr O’Carroll, who founded IPS Packaging 20 years ago.
“They were desperately needed and had to be air-freighted in from China, at a premium cost, but in many cases were being sourced at a general thickness below recommended levels.
“Being in packaging, I thought that we could probably make these at a higher quality and for a lower cost in Ireland if we figured out how to do it efficiently.
“We were non-manufacturing packaging distributors, but we dealt a lot with white, polyethylene virgin grade which is the same material used to make standard shopping bags, is thicker than what was being used, and is recyclable.
“I realised that the aprons could be manufactured if we used machines specifically designed for the corrugated paper industry – and that no-one had used them for that purpose as they are such a low-value item.
“I always wanted to go into manufacturing and when you don’t get long enough to think about something, you make a decision pretty quickly.
“We bought in three large machines and got our operating procedures and health and safety and insurance in place and started manufacturing.
“We also contracted one or two older companies who had similar machines but didn’t have work due to the Covid-19 restrictions.
“It has really worked – in the past six weeks our sales are up four-fold and we have gone from nine staff to 19 with another 16 people indirectly employed because of our new manufacturing process.”
Mr O’Carroll said he was now considering adding an evening shift to the manufacturing operation – a move that would increase production from 1.6 million units a week to 2.3 million.
“It has been an instant success with customers, and we are heavily supplying the medical, food and hair and beauty industries, with a lot of interest from salon suppliers who will need this equipment to reopen,” he said.
“These products need to be a thickness between 16 and 18 microns to work but the quality of some of the products from China was 11 to 12 microns.
“We are making a quality apron at a 25-micron thickness which has no lead time and is cheaper than the imported PPE.
“All the material is recyclable. There is no waste as all trim we take off the material is sent back to the UK to be re-granulated.”