When lockdown hit economies worldwide early in 2020, New Plymouth medical bed and stretcher manufacturer Howard Wright Limited found a way to thrive.
Having become a significant but still relatively small manufacturer in the global market of medical beds and stretchers across 57 years – operating “Between the toes of elephants,” in the words of CEO Bruce Moller – Howard Wright handled an influx of demand this year by leaning into it, doubling work shifts to meet orders from Australia and the UK where COVID-19 was putting a strain on hospitals.
Moller says the extra demand has assisted business returns in 2020. It’s expected demand may undergo a correction in 2021.
“This year we learned a lot about our internal capability,” Moller says. “We were thankful we could make things in-house to provide a continuity of supply. If we were outsourcing component and sub-assembly manufacture and only assembling, we might not have been able to supply our customers.”
All Howard Wright beds and stretchers are fabricated and assembled in New Plymouth. Motors which enable height and position adjustments are imported from Europe as are the castors.
When lockdown restricted trade from March 2020, “Our biggest challenge was getting supply,” Moller says. “Demand was high on some key components as most of our competitors use the same motors and castor systems. There was demand pressure and inevitable allocation of these items.”
Once supply was confirmed, there were logistical challenges due to urgent delivery times which required the use of air freight. “The airlines were under a lot of pressure; passenger planes can’t be simply converted to carrying cargo. Everybody wanted things in a hurry, such as the shipping of PPE. Airfreight demand shot through the roof.”
The staff at Howard Wright’s New Plymouth factory responded by splitting into two teams working seven days a week, for a total of 80 hours per week.
Moller says a focus on quality remained a top priority, even as the teams were buffeted by demand.
“We increased our quality inspection staff to assure our reputation for high quality.
“It’s a highly regulated business, products are independently tested, and changes are rigorously managed – substitute components cannot be simply used without the correct approvals,” Moller says.
The decision to stay in New Zealand and not outsource aspects of the manufacturing process was made several years ago. Since then, Howard Wright has invested in technology including a laser tube cutter, CNC machining centres and robotics to enable it to remain competitive.
Howard Wright ends the year positively, with its award-winning M10 Bed and M9 Trauma Stretcher selling particularly well. Both these products can be deployed low to the ground reducing the risk of patient falls. Other design features in their beds and stretchers minimise the risk of patient pressure injuries. Moller adds the easy to clean and disinfect surfaces have been “particularly beneficial” in this year’s COVID-19 environment.
As one of the last manufacturers of medical beds and stretchers in Australasia, the company produces over 2000 units per year. Moller is expecting his team will continue to handle future demand fluctuations, proving that New Zealand retains speciality manufacturing know-how and can-do.