Business guide to Coronavirus

From V8 supercars to emergency ventilators

COVID-19 hasn’t slowed down this Queensland motorsports company. It’s pedal to the metal as it builds and fine tunes a ventilator prototype.

One day you’re tinkering with a V8 Supercar, the next you’re designing an ‘emergency’ ventilator. That’s the reality for Brisbane company Triple Eight Race Engineering. When the Australian Grand Prix was cancelled in March 2020, the team opted to tap into its skills and knowledge for the greater good.

For the past four weeks, engineers have been working with medical professionals and intensive care experts to create an ‘emergency’ ventilator.

Team principal Roland Dane said the group was currently upgrading its initial concept to meet the functionality and performance requirements announced recently by the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

“We’ve built two more prototypes in the past fortnight that have the increased functionality and features needed, plus one or two other key improvements that we saw as desirable for a COVID-19 machine,” he said.

The company has so far bankrolled the project to the tune of $175,000. Roland said about 10 engineers were involved, and another four to five were assisting with manufacturing the prototype – all up, about half of Triple Eight’s workforce.

Roland said the process had been challenging. Firstly, the group needed to educate themselves about medical equipment and understand what issues they needed to be cognisant of. Then, there was a host of supply chain issues that made accessing parts and materials difficult.

“The constraints caused by the current global situation were big,” says Roland.

“We had to engineer solutions to try and get around those constraints to build effective working prototypes.”

The product is not intended for hospital use. Rather, it’s an ‘emergency’ ventilator for use in “less than ideal circumstances”. So hopefully it won’t ever be needed in Australia.

Roland said the project highlighted the lack of manufacturing capability in Australia.

When the COVID-19 crisis finally ends, he believes the issue will have to be addressed.

“It’s uppermost in many people’s minds,” he said.

“We feel almost hostage to the fact that we don’t produce some of the key proponents that are useful in our everyday lives. The main manufacturing bases of the world have grown to such scale and dominance that it’s difficult for countries like Australia to be self-dependent any more.

“I’d like to see manufacturing and engineering skills given far greater credence and promotion in Australia so we can be less reliant on other people.”

This, of course, will come at a price. And there’ll need to be a change of mindset.

Roland gave the example of a recent purchase from Bunnings – a household iron bought for the princely sum of $7.

“It’s made to not last very long. And it’s made by people not being paid much,” he said. 

“We need stuff that will last 10 years, not 10 days. It sums up everything wrong about what we’ve gotten ourselves sucked in. We’ve gotten too used to a throwaway society. We’ve got more choice than we could ever need. If we redefine some of those parameters after this crisis, I would venture that’s a good thing.”

When the crisis finally ends is anyone’s guess. 

Roland says Triple Eight is in a good position but “we can’t last forever”.

The company operates the Red Bull Holden Racing Team and builds a range of parts and components for Supercars.

Travel restrictions and social distancing measures mean the racing team can no longer compete, and demand for parts is quickly evaporating.

Roland says the government’s JobKeeper package has been ‘absolutely fundamental’ to the business’ survival.

“We would have already made people redundant if it wasn’t for that,” he said.

“It’s allowed us to keep going until we see what the longer-term picture looks like. It keeps us flexible and certainly helps.”

For now, Triple Eight will continue to use the downtime to increase its skill set and “broaden our horizons”. 

Roland urged other businesses to do the same.

“Use JobKeeper not just to subsidise the pay of people,” he said.

“Increase skill sets and increase your learning and understanding of whatever field you’re in so that it creates new opportunities and improves your offering after the crisis is over.”

Marise Donnolley

Editor, My Business

Marise Donnolley is a journalist and editor with more than 20 years' experience in the media. 

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