How a Welsh Engineering Company Became Lead PPE Supplier in the UK

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In years to come, many people will look back on the COVID crisis as a make or break moment in their personal and business lives.

For Oliver Conger, Managing Director of Port Talbot-based Rototherm Group, the past four months have seen him and his team ride a rollercoaster of emotions – from staring down the abyss at the potential demise of their 173-year old business, to producing an astonishing 50,000 face masks a day in the fight against the deadly virus, by unleashing the power of his company’s agile precision engineering.

How did Oliver’s firm go from the dark days of late March, to give birth to Rotomedical: a new company within the group that’s become a beacon of hope across the UK – producing per head of workforce what may well be the largest volume of high-quality Surgical Masks, Face Shields and Goggles anywhere in the UK?

“From a potential crisis to taking the market lead” 

Oliver takes up the story:

“A week before lockdown I stood in front of everyone in one of our twice weekly team meetings and explained we have only two objectives to achieve going through the pandemic. One was to keep everyone safe, and the second was to keep everyone in a job by working through the crisis.” Easier said than done when accommodating scenarios of 25%-50% trading downturns – and an understandably concerned 110-strong workforce seeing one-third of private sector Welsh employees being furloughed around them.

“A number of our people were asking ‘Why should we remain open, we’re not essential workers or supplying the NHS?’. It was very challenging to keep everyone motivated. But we’ve always been a lean, honest and tight-knit team, so I owed everyone the truth, which was the simple fact that if we closed down we might not have a business to reopen.”

“We got the call and stepped up to the challenge”

Fortune favouring the brave, Oliver then received what transpired to be a game-changing call from a contact at none other than the NHS. Rototherm have long enjoyed an arrangement with Cardiff and Vale Health Board, providing factory tours and training in lean management. This time, though, the call was for help. Critical, life-or-death help. Could Rototherm make some visors for an intensive care unit?

“We’ve always prided ourselves on being innovative and able to meet any need, so we cut some visors and sent them down the Vale. The next day the phone started ringing, with people enquiring ‘are you the guys making face shields? After the fourth or fifth call we turned to each other and said, ‘I guess we are’.”

Rototherm’s engineers worked through the weekend to design an improved prototype, sending it off for regulatory approval. Within two weeks of the initial request Rototherm had a CE marked face shield ready for quantity production. A formal contract with NHS Wales followed. All within a month of standing in front of his team, fearing the worst.

“From prototype to regulatory approval in record time”

“That’s when the floodgates opened,” Oliver said. “They asked, how many hundreds of thousands can you manufacture over a week? So we went from making 1,000 a day to ramping up to 5,000 a day, then 10,000. Now we’re making 50,000 plus a day.”

What does Oliver put this “insane” period of successful product transformation and operational development down to?

“We’ve always run a highly-focused operation with a blend of the right skills in the right place – and a working culture where everyone commits to achieving goals together. Mindset is just as important as the latest lean practices and it’s that combination that’s enabled us to be agile when we needed it most – bringing in new automated equipment, rejigging the entire factory here at Margam, more than doubling the size of workforce, all done seamlessly.

“Speed, Skillsets, Cost-efficiency – and Quality, Quality, Quality”

“Achieving all that at phenomenal speed while maintaining the highest ISO 8 rated cleanroom standards has been central to everything. Quality is the key constant running through our 173 year history. We’re very cost efficient but we simply refuse to compromise on quality. When we looked initially at the face shields for example, we worked with a number of surgeons and GPs to refine the design, making it high comfort and very durable. If you’re wearing them for six or seven hours a day, on maybe one operation, you don’t want something that’s going to start hurting your head after an hour. That blend of quality, cost-efficiency and the right skillsets working at critical speed means we can produce better medical and non-medical grade PPE than China – and much quicker, at almost the same cost.

“It’s a combination of key characteristics that’s always been and always will be at the heart of what we do.”