Repurposed: Bottles of Four Pillars Take Care hand sanitiser are packed at the Four Pillars Gin Distillery in Healesville, Australia. In SA, small producers are struggling to get the necessary regulatory approvals. Picture: Carla Gottgens/Getty Images
Repurposed: Bottles of Four Pillars Take Care hand sanitiser are packed at the Four Pillars Gin Distillery in Healesville, Australia. In SA, small producers are struggling to get the necessary regulatory approvals. Picture: Carla Gottgens/Getty Images

The world has been turned on its head and businesses are reconfiguring what they do, either to survive or to help to provide critical supplies in the battle against Covid-19. Or both.

"Not since World War 2 have so many companies in the business of making cars, clothes or other items been asked to switch up their production lines for the common good," says international news organisation Quartz. In that conflict, makers of silk products stepped up to churn out parachutes for the armed forces, while carmakers diverted their production lines to aircraft engines, guns and tanks.

A similar scenario is playing out today, as companies step up to redirect resources and production lines to minimise the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic. Car companies, for example, are producing medical supplies, while luxury businesses are ditching runway gear to create masks and medical gear, or switching from perfumes to hand sanitisers.

The liquor industry is also mixing up its production output. SA Breweries has started producing hand sanitiser, and Distell — normally associated with drinks like Savanna and Klipdrift — has committed 100,000l of alcohol to be used for sanitisers, as well as other hygiene and sanitising products.

The company will provide 20,000l of alcohol a day for hand sanitiser, to be produced at its Wellington and Goudini factories, which usually make the Amarula, Bain’s Whisky and Olof Bergh brands. It estimates it will be able to produce 40,000l of sanitiser a day.

Petrochemicals company Sasol is also producing alcohol for hand sanitisers and disinfectants, and the company has delivered about 8Ml to the local market and its own laboratories in recent weeks. Its daily ethanol production figure is close to 300,000l, based on information from its annual financial report.

But Hendre’ Barnard, secretary of the Southern African Craft Distilling Institute, says: "If we assume that entire daily production is turned into 65% alcohol hand sanitiser, that works out to less than 8ml a person in SA. That’s not enough. And that’s if we’re assuming it’s only [going into] hand sanitiser; alcohol is also used on surfaces, [and for] food and production facilities.

"In addition, most bulk alcohol and sanitiser supply has already been purchased by the government and other entities for hospitals, clinics and public services. That does not leave a lot — or any — for NGOs or private individuals."

Barnard’s institute represents a large portion of the more than 130 craft distillers and craft spirit producers in the country, many of which want to produce hand sanitisers during the crisis. The problem is that many of these small distillers are not yet able to produce the products legally.

The SA Revenue Service has waived excise duty on alcohol used for the production of sanitisers, and provided an amendment that allows applications to be completed online and processed quickly. But this amendment only applies to "bona fide" manufacturers of sanitisers — which means the manufacturer has to be registered as such. And the distilleries have not been able to fulfil the registration and related testing requirements because many of the relevant departments and service providers are closed.

"Legally, distillers around the country who did not manage to get their registration in place before lockdown are not allowed to produce sanitiser," says Barnard. Despite this, many are doing so — because they’re misinterpreting government communications, they’re taking a chance, or they’re taking the view that it’s a social imperative. But it could have retrospective legal ramifications, he warns.

"We’ve been working on this for more than two weeks, even before the lockdown. We’re asking for the government to suspend — without room for misinterpretation — all requirements related to sanitiser manufacture for licensed micro liquor manufacturers, so we can help our local communities," says Barnard.

"We have clients with orders from the SA National Defence Force and police service — it’s not just smaller businesses, old-age homes and local clinics and charities we’re trying to help."

Outside of the sanitiser sector, other SA companies are also coming to the party, adapting their output to meet specific needs around the crisis.

Curro Holdings, the largest JSE-listed education provider, has offered the services of its 3D printers and staff to help make protective face shields for medical workers. And a group of 3D printing enthusiasts, with the help of funders, launched Ruach 3D late last month. The initiative is using 3D technology to equip health workers with various products, including face shields and masks.

First Ascent — best known for its hiking gear and leisurewear — has also turned its attention to producing face masks for health-care workers. Now an essential-service supplier, the First Ascent Cape Town factory is producing thousands of masks during lockdown, the company says. And Ford SA has begun production on 57,000 face shields at its Silverton plant.

Netflorist, too, is reinventing itself as an essential-service supplier. The company, which normally delivers fresh flowers and gift packages, now has an offering of fresh fruit and vegetables, tea, coffee, biltong and chocolates, among other "essential" items, and it has plans in the pipeline to deliver groceries too.

Quartz makes the point that technological developments such as advanced robotics, data analytics and 3D printing have made it easier for companies to switch gears and manufacture even complex products.

For example, the advances allow companies the adaptability to help plug the gap for products such as ventilators and respirators.

In SA, state arms and technology company Denel has announced it will design and develop medical ventilators in partnership with other state-owned entities, research bodies and medical technology companies.

And appliance brand Defy is looking to start producing ventilators by the end of the month. According to news website Business Insider, SA hopes to produce 10,000 ventilators by the end of June, ramping up to 50,000 if necessary.

Further afield, companies such as Ford and General Electric (GE) have also entered the medical equipment game.

Carmakers are the first to admit they don’t know much about this arena.

"We’re not the experts here, but we can help the experts," Ford spokesperson Mike Levine told IEEE Spectrum, the website of the world’s largest professional organisation for engineering and the applied sciences.

The company is leveraging its expertise in fast manufacturing, logistics and supply chain operations. Ford has said it is working with 3M to manufacture "powered air-purifying respirators, which come in the form of a hood, or full-face masks".

It’s also going to work with GE on expanding production capacity for GE Healthcare Systems’ ventilator, with a simplified design that should allow for higher-volume production. According to Ford CEO Jim Hackett, it currently takes GE about 27 hours to build a ventilator. He estimates Ford can cut production time in half.

In the UK, Formula One teams have responded to the government’s call for assistance, and are looking into producing — or assisting with the production of — medical devices. Mercedes last week received approval for a respiratory device that could keep Covid-19 patients with lung infections out of intensive care units.

And Dyson, the British technology company that makes household appliances such as vacuum cleaners, air purifiers and hairdryers, has received an order from the UK government for 10,000 ventilators, CNN reports. Company founder James Dyson told the news channel the group has designed and built an entirely new ventilator called the "CoVent" since he received a call from UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

British American Tobacco (BAT), owner of cigarette brands such as Lucky Strike, Dunhill and Camel, is usually associated with the opposite end of the health spectrum. Now it is working on a possible coronavirus vaccine using tobacco plants.

"If testing goes well, BAT is hopeful that, with the right partners and support from government agencies, between 1-million and 3-million doses of the vaccine could be manufactured per week, beginning in June," the company told The Guardian newspaper.

BAT’s biotech subsidiary, Kentucky BioProcessing, has moved to pre-clinical testing for the product. It’s not a commercial endeavour, according to the company. "We’ve been very clear," chief marketing officer Kingsley Wheaton told the FM last week, "anything we do on Covid-19 is entirely not-for-profit."

What it means:

Factories are switching from consumer nice-to-have products to life-saving equipment

Also in the Covid-19 treatment realm is Japanese camera company Fujifilm, through its subsidiary Toyama Chemical. The company already manufactures a flu drug called Avigan (favipiravir is the generic version), which is being tested in China as a possible treatment for Covid-19. About 30 countries have already made requests to Japan through diplomatic channels to buy Avigan, and the government has said it is considering providing it for free to aid the fight against the coronavirus.

Elsewhere in the manufacturing sector, luxury goods and beauty groups are applying their skills to producing apparel and masks for health-care workers.

Beauty conglomerates L’Oréal and Coty are using their facilities to produce large quantities of hand sanitiser for European hospitals. And French luxury group LVMH — home to Louis Vuitton, Bulgari, Tiffany and Dom Pérignon, among others — has moved into making hand sanitiser that will be freely available to the public. It’s also commissioned a Chinese supplier to produce 40-million health masks. The first batch of 10-million will be distributed to French health-care authorities.

Luxury group Kering, owner of Gucci, has said the fashion brand will produce more than 1-million masks and 50,000 medical overalls in Italy, and once local medical authorities give the go-ahead in France, its Saint Laurent and Balenciaga brands will do the same.

Prada has said it will produce 80,000 medical overalls and 110,000 masks for Tuscan health-care personnel, after a request from the Italian region’s government.

Fast-fashion retailers are also on board. Swedish fashion giant H&M is "quickly arranging" for its supply chain to manufacture personal protective equipment for hospitals and health-care workers, according to industry website FashionUnited. In Spain, Inditex, the parent company of Zara, is looking to refit its textile factories to make hospital gowns.

Athletic brand Nike is reconfiguring its resources — it is prototyping face shields for medical professionals by repurposing elements of its signature shoe, the Nike Air.