Gatineau plant aiming to produce up to eight million COVID-19 test swabs a month

COVID-19 swabs
COVID-19 swabs

As the federal government prepares to roll out millions of rapid COVID-19 tests, a Winnipeg-based manufacturer of medical equipment is setting up a new plant in the National Capital Region to satisfy an expected surge in demand for nasal swabs and other testing items. 

Precision ADM says it’s investing more than $2 million in a 3,500-square-foot facility near the Gatineau airport that will be capable of churning out as many as eight million swabs a month. The company hopes to begin production early next year.

The plant is expected to employ at least 50 people once it’s in full swing, said Martin Lavoie, Precision ADM’s manager for Quebec and Ontario. 

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While the federal government announced last month it’s planning to buy nearly eight million on-site COVID-19 tests in the months ahead, Lavoie said his firm is also fielding calls from governments around the world anxiously seeking new supplies of testing equipment and expects to serve both domestic and foreign markets.

“There’s demand everywhere right now, not just in Canada,” Lavoie said. “There’s a lot of rapid testing devices that are coming on the market. Even if we get a vaccine, even if we get to a level that the number of infected people is going down, the number of tests is going to increase. We will need to test a lot of people to make sure we got rid of (the virus).”

Precision ADM specializes in 3D-printed products made from high-strength metals such as chrome and titanium. Before the pandemic, it focused on producing devices such as knee and hip implants for medical clients as well as aircraft engine parts and other equipment for the aerospace and defence sectors at its Winnipeg plant.

State-of-the-art printers

The firm pivoted to producing plastic nasal swabs used to take test samples early in the spring as demand for other products slowed. The Winnipeg plant currently turns out about 800,000 swabs a month on 130 state-of-the-art 3D printers. 

But Lavoie, who was hired a year ago to help Precision ADM expand into eastern Canada, said the firm realized early in the pandemic it would need to find a faster and more cost-efficient way to manufacture the swabs.

He said the Gatineau plant will employ injection-moulding technology that can produce swabs up to 10 times faster at a lower cost per unit. Precision ADM’s new swab design is currently undergoing clinical trials in Quebec, and the company hopes to receive Health Canada approval for the product before the end of the year.

Precision ADM is also developing its own line of personal protective equipment, including a custom-fitted N95 respirator mask that can be sterilized and reused up to 30 times. The company is now in the midst of testing the filter materials and hopes to get the green light from Health Canada to start production at the Gatineau facility within the next few months. 

‘Convenient’ location

Lavoie said Precision ADM considered numerous sites for the new plant, including Ottawa and Montreal, before deciding to set up shop in Gatineau. He said the region’s close proximity to both Toronto and Montreal was a major factor in the company’s decision. 

“Logistically, there’s a lot of shipping to do with our products, so it’s kind of convenient to be in a central place,” Lavoie said. “You can ship overnight pretty much anything between Windsor and Quebec City.”

The firm also plans to assemble testing kits in Gatineau that will include swabs as well as the tubes and preservatives used when samples are shipped from testing sites to laboratories. The company is hoping to put together more than 50,000 kits a week with help from Centre de Travail Laro, a Gatineau organization that employs dozens of people with disabilities to perform tasks such as packaging and mailing. 

Lavoie said Precision ADM is also looking to partner with other local companies to help ramp up its production capacity, including injection-moulding specialist L-D Tool & Die. The Stittsville manufacturer has been producing COVID-19 test kits since the spring.

“We would love to work with them,” Lavoie said. “They’re local; they’ve been in this business for 40 years. They know what they’re doing.”

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