Shields, coffee cups and recruitment – meet the West Midlands business making their way through the coronavirus crisis

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For all the downbeat headlines, stories about lockdowns and daily updates on infection rates and death tolls, there have been real waves of positivity throughout the coronavirus crisis.

From a bumper response to the Government’s plea for NHS volunteers to the weekly Clap for Carers initiative, these difficult times have brought out the best in people.

No exception to this has been within the West Midlands’ business community.

From repurposing factory technology to diversifying services, the past few weeks have shown how innovative and adaptable companies can be when duty calls.

Nowhere can this be seen more than in the vast array of manufacturing and engineering firms who have put their technology to new uses to provide vital equipment to NHS and other healthcare staff.

Among them is the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) where engineers have developed a protective shield for staff involved in the intubation procedure for patients linked up to ventilators.

The shields have been designed in collaboration with medical experts and Rolls-Royce, Aston Martin and component firm Multimatic, with wider support from government agency Innovate UK.

The team moved from prototype to manufacture in less than a week and the MTC in Coventry said it was aiming to increase production to 200 units per day.

MTC engineers in Coventry have created a protective shield for NHS staff involved in the intubation procedure

Chief executive Clive Hickman said: “The acrylic shields with access panels for medical staff are manufactured as complete units or can be produced as flat-pack self-assembly kits.

“It is anticipated that the NHS may need several thousand of these shields and we are delighted to be playing our part.”

Two of Birmingham’s most famous companies have both repurposed their factories to produce equipment to be worn by frontline healthcare staff.

3D printing tech at Cadbury’s factory in Bournville, usually used to create tasty chocolate sculptures, is now manufacturing parts of visors in a joint project with Warwick-based engineering company 3P Innovation.

It has also invested money so 3P Innovation can buy injection mould technology which will mean the visors can be mass produced with the aim of delivering up to 10,000 units per week.

Jaguar Land Rover has switched from sports cars to PPE, with 3D printing tech at its site in Gaydon being used to make protective visors.

The design for reusable masks was developed in consultation with a team of NHS professionals and the company is producing around 1,300 visors a week with the possibility of developing the operation for mass production.

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West Midlands coronavirus news

Engineering group Envisage has created a portable ventilator concept using off-the-shelf medical components.

It has applied electro-mechanical technology which is normally used to support new product development for a host of industries including transportation.

The prototype ventilator uses components already approved for medical use combined with some parts fabricated in house by the Coventry-based company.

Chief executive Tim Strafford said: “Our electro-mechanical capabilities are more normally applied to automotive and transportation engineering concept development but they have been invaluable in designing and manufacturing this ventilator concept.”

Away from the buzz of the manufacturing plants and production lines, the region’s business community has been working hard from their homes-turned-offices to offer their own brand of help during the virus outbreak.

Limitless Travel founder Angus Drummond has turned his hand to recruitment
Limitless Travel founder Angus Drummond has turned his hand to recruitment

Birmingham-based Limitless Travel normally runs holidays catered for people with disabilities and mobility restrictions and part of its offer is that trained carers accompany groups on their trips.

With no holidays taking place, the agency has been unable to offer carers work so has turned its hand to recruitment instead and effectively become an employment agency.

Angus Drummond, who set up the company in 2015 after being diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, said: “At this time when travel is not possible, we are changing focus to ensure nobody misses out on the care they require.

“With many people being discharged from hospital early looking for care, and care companies experiencing significant shortages of staff due to demand, Limitless Travel is finding and recruiting carers for those in need.

“We only recruit the best carers to work on our holidays and it is now our mission to ensure anyone who requires care during the covid-19 crisis is not left without care and support.”

A Birmingham start-up company which only launched in March has already won fans on the NHS and earned recognition from a very high-profile businessman.

Annie Powers has only just launched SoleCup but is already winning fans
Annie Powers has only just launched SoleCup but is already winning fans

SoleCup was founded by Annie Powers who recently graduated after studying chemical with environmental engineering and has created a long-life, reusable glass travel mug with a sealed lid.

She said a nurse contacted her to say the product would be ideal for frontline healthcare workers as it was unlikely drinks could be contaminated, prompting Ms Powers to donate cups to Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham.

The company is now also offering discounts to NHS workers.

The move caught the attention of former Dragons’ Den star Theo Paphitis who named SoleCup a winner in his weekly Small Business Sunday competition and Ms Powers is now set to meet him to collect an award.

She said: “I’ve wanted my own eco friendly business for a while so I was determined to make a go of it even though it’s quite a challenging time.

“To have the opportunity to support our incredible NHS has been great and to be chosen by Theo was surprising and a fantastic boost.”

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One man who was never going to be able to take it easy during the coronavirus crisis was Paul Faulkner, chief executive of Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce.

He told the Birmingham Post the chamber was “in awe” of the adaptability, flexibility and resilience that businesses had shown amid the covid-19 crisis.

“Many of them have stepped up to assist their fellow businesses and communities…all demonstrating selfless behaviour in the face of adversity,” he said.

“We cannot deny this is an immensely challenging time for business, many of which are facing crucial cash flow issues and are making difficult decisions every day.

“However, I am heartened at their efforts to keep business moving and their unwavering support in the fight against this virus.”

The chamber itself has been offering a range of assistance in recent weeks including a voluntary service to support the West Midlands Combined Authority on its PPE project.

Staff have been undertaking free company checks and answering triage queries to ensure the authority is able to source as much PPE as possible.

The chamber also has businesses-related information on its website and is offering members access to a free legal and HR helpline while moving networking events online.

And finally, Indian restaurant Asha’s has promised to throw a free banquet for NHS workers at its venues in Birmingham and Solihull when the lockdown ends.

General manager Domnic Norunha said: “Our management team and staff are in awe of the heroic work being carried out by our brave NHS staff so we thought it would be a great way of saying ‘Thank You’ if we entertained them for one evening, completely free of charge.”

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