WHEN the COVID pandemic hit, Australia had only one manufacturer of surgical masks. Now, Merbein South is on the list of places where it can be done.

Analytical Laboratories & Technical Services Australia (ALTSA), the company that took over the former CSIRO site, have begun making masks right in our own backyard.

It’s no small operation either, with the production line having a capacity of 2.5 million masks per year at present – with hopes to expand significantly and create more jobs.

There are three product lines: respirator, surgical and medical masks.

Innovation is also a focus, with work being done on softer straps that are easier on the ears than products currently on the market.

The masks are an addition to ALTSA’s work providing an expanding range of analytical services to the region, which so far includes soil and plant, nutrition, pesticide, microbiology and DNA related testing.

ALTSA general manager Ray Harris said they saw a need for local production, with COVID showing how beholden Australia was to overseas manufacturers.

“We decided to have a go at this to meet the requirement for an Australian product,” Mr Harris said.

“Going into the future, there’s bound to be other pandemics and flus and infections − we’ll be the local supplier of those products.”

The move also fitted in well with the company’s existing services and showed what was possible at the Merbein South facilities.

So far 19 employees work on site, with more chemists and salespeople joining soon.

“We’re looking to be a one-stop shop as far as all analytical tests that need to be done in this region, but equally to diversify and offer a range of things so that we can continue to grow here,” Mr Harris said.

“Because we’ve got a great facility, we’ve got great space, we’ve got great infrastructure that we’ve inherited from the CSIRO and we have great people, we’re looking to be just growing and growing.”

Major retailers locally have signed up as customers for the masks and schools are also looking at the products.

Discussions are taking place with local medical practices and online orders are being taken via the ALTSA website.

Soon it was expected the masks would be offered through Grays Online, Catch of the Day and Amazon.

Member for Mallee Anne Webster and Mildura Regional Development CEO Brett Millington were last week given a tour of the production process.

The production line starts with the making of the mask body, then each mask is individually wrapped, a point of difference to existing products on the market.

Sanitisation is the next step, followed by boxing.

Then, the product is ready to go to the customer.

Dr Webster said the facility was precisely what the region needed.

“Stepping in to actually assist in the process of helping us living with COVID, through masks, is a wonderful thing,” she said.

“They’re testing soil and water and fruit and vegetables, and yet they can move into − with engineers on the ground − creating a manufacturing plant here in Merbein South.”

Mr Millington said it was fantastic ALTSA were able to pivot towards making masks.

“It’s an example of the type of pioneering spirit we have not only in Mildura but the region more broadly,” he said.

“I’ve been out here a number of times now and watching how they’ve grown and the staff numbers have grown, it’s just another fantastic employer in our region.”

By MICHAEL DI FABRIZIO

ABOVE: From left to right, Mildura Regional Development CEO Brett Millington, ALTSA quality control analysts Mandy Men and Bryce Kerr, Member for Mallee Anne Webster, second-in-charge engineer Jay Bandara, engineer Ruchira Peiris and general manager Ray Harris.