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  • Holger Dielenberg

Shaking off Covid with three new awards

Space Tank’s efforts to make PPE during Covid has won the Melbourne makerspace another two Manufacturing Endeavour Awards and a finalist nomination in the Victorian Premiers Design Awards this year.

These awards come in recognition of two ventures that we pursued during pandemic lockdowns in Melbourne.

Looking back, it feels like a blur as we pivoted the makerspace from day to day operations of a business incubator, to doing something useful in the fight against Covid.

We were pushed to do extraordinary things and often found ourselves way outside our comfort zone as we took on challenges that at the time seemed the obvious, if not only choice. Like many small businesses struggling to stay alive, the survival of Space Tank itself was at stake.

It is such a relief to be on the other side of what has been a torturous 2 years, made ever so sweeter for receiving these awards for our efforts.

We are honoured and grateful to the Manufacturers Endeavour Awards and to the Victorian Premier’s Design Awards for recognising our work and pay our respects to all other finalists and winners.

In those first few months of pandemic lockdowns, government mandates asked everyone to adopt health protocols like social distancing and wearing face shields or masks. Victoria felt the brunt of the first waves of Covid and both industry and government fell over themselves as they struggled to meet demand for PPE. Media outlets signaled supply chain deficiencies and called out weaknesses in Australian sovereign manufacturing capabilities.

Meanwhile, many of our Space Tank members and studio tenants were forced into isolation and our entire makerspace facility was largely quiet for the first time in 6 years of operation. We were forced to cancel casual memberships, put all classes on hold and our operating capacity dropped from 120 percent capacity down to 70 percent within the first six months of the 2021 lockdowns.

Whilst we struggled to make ends meet, we saw an opportunity to put our idle resources to good use by making PPE. Consequently, Space Tank’s tech lab went from silence, to employing 8 people around the clock.

In a period of 6 weeks, our novel single piece face shield went from concept to prototype to sales distribution. Space Tank proved that, with the right design and production volume, face shields could be manufactured in Melbourne for the same price as Chinese equivalents.

In the first two months we made over 20,000 units in-house by working around the clock using our own laser cutters. To keep up with demand we then switched to partnering with a local plastic manufacturer to achieve a twenty-fold increase in production capacity.

By word of mouth alone, Rapid Shield was being used around Australia by Mecca Cosmetics, Tiffany & Co luxury jewellery stores, Salvation Army Australia feeding the homeless, Bakers Delight, Channel Ten’s The Project, the Australian Tax Office, Schools, GP clinics, aged care and disability services, major beauty chains, fashion retailers, speech pathologists and schools. Rapid Shield also won a Good Design Award and the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) Design Award.

Space Tank’s Rapid Shield won the Safety Solution of the Year Award and the studio won Oustanding Startup of the Year in the Manufacturing Endeavour Awards.

Based on our face shield success, we were approached by colleagues in the health industry to develop a mobile patient isolation device for use in healthcare environments.

Space Tank worked with Purple House who sourced funding from BHP for the project. We created a new company, Health Forge to research, design and build the new environmental detoxification device. In accordance with national medical regulations, Health Forge developed from scratch appropriate ISO compliance systems and incorporated risk and safety mitigation into the design. Health Forge’s team of engineers and designers worked closely with Northern Health, Curtin University and Alice Springs Hospital to develop and build the new device.

The brief was initially intended to serve outback indigenous communities, and accordingly we called our new device KUTITJI which means Shield in the Northern Territory Pintupi language. However, research and market feedback indicated a much broader application in urban hospitals and aged care where lack of isolation rooms and inadequate ventilation systems were contributing to airborne Covid transmissions and therefore a more robust, hospital grade device was designed.

KUTITJI reduces the threat of airborne disease transmissions by creating mobile patient isolation for beds and chairs. The patient’s exhaled breath is extracted through HEPA filters, removing up to 99.95% of harmful pathogens, thus protecting health care workers and other patients outside the device. KUTITJI is an effective and reliable method of controlling airborne Hospital Acquired Infections and addresses a worldwide shortage of isolation spaces in healthcare by providing a more flexible and scalable patient isolation solution, at one twentieth the cost of in-situ isolation rooms.

Health Forge’s KUTITJI mobile patient isolation device was nominated Product Design Finalist in the Victorian Premiers Design Awards.

These pivots into manufacturing face shields and designing a new mobile patient isolation medical device have taught us many things. Of the lessons we have learnt, three stand out: practice what you preach, play to your strengths and manage your expectations.

I admit, we didn’t always get it right. And we wore the consequences.

Subjecting yourself to constant challenges, overcoming hurdles and learning by doing seems like a hard way to win. But for small Melbourne businesses struggling to survive the pandemic, extraordinary became necessity.

Throughout two years of lockdowns and both ventures, we won awards, ate a lot of humble pie, suffered enormous debt, experienced incredible highs and made new friends and allies.

Ultimately, we survived the brutal pandemic conditions inflicted upon Melbourne businesses and we maintained a safe harbour for our startup tenants to continue their practice.

We remain Melbourne’s business makerspace. A manufacturing incubator built by, and for, makers and entrepreneurs.

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