How This Business Transformed to Help Health Workers

Ignite Digi owners

With the film industry on pause, Ignite Digi swapped the big screen for face screens.

If you’ve been bingeing on Netflix over the past few months, chances are you’ve watched a TV show or movie filmed using equipment from Ignite Digi, a small Hobart-based business that designs and manufactures accessories for high-end cinema cameras. 

“Our accessories have been used on feature films like Deadpool, Disney’s upcoming live-action Mulan film, the Suicide Squad spin-off Birds of Prey and A Star Is Born,” says Ignite Digi co-founder Tom Waugh. “Our accessories help professionals do it quicker, get more shots, get longer battery run time and get more use out of one camera.”

Cinematographer Waugh and co-founder Chris Fox would typically sell 97 per cent of their products overseas – mostly to the US (about 50 per cent), Europe and the UK. But then the cameras stopped rolling. With global feature film and television production brought to a standstill by COVID-19, “Sales plummeted to near on zero," says Fox. "So we're trying to redirect our efforts and energy into doing something for our local community.”

That something is plastic face shields – vital personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline medical workers. Ignite Digi teamed up with fellow Tassie company Lightning Protection International (LPI) to manufacture 10,000 shields, which were donated to local hospitals. “The shields provide additional protection over the top of N95 filtration masks – a splash-proof shield that can be washed and sterilised, rather than just a single-use design. The first batch went straight up to ICU and theatre,” says Waugh. “In fact, when we 3D printed the prototype we took some down to the ICU nurses at the hospital to get their feedback so they’ve been part of the design process all along.”

Ignite Digi face shield

By mid-May, they’d also sold a few thousands shields to government agencies – a welcome revenue boost from a project that started off as “really just giving our team something to do and be useful so frontline workers could be safe,” says Waugh. “We love Hobart and we feel lucky that we have an opportunity to help our local community.”

It’s also opened up new partnerships with other local businesses and future opportunities in the manufacturing space. “It’s been an interesting challenge for us to look local because we’ve never really sold anything locally. We haven’t ever offered our services as a machine shop – we’ve always been absolutely flat out making our parts so we’ve never had to look locally and say, ‘Hey we’ve got these cool things, we can make stuff too.’” But a new machine that was installed and commissioned in February has capacity to make more than Ignite Digi needs “so now we do have the capacity to take external work, even when our parts start to pick back up again”.

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Although the past few months have been challenging, it’s not the first time they’ve faced an uncertain future financially. “Back in mid-2015 we really stared down the barrel and then again in mid-2016 we got to a point where there still wasn’t much revenue coming in and Chris was looking at getting a job just to get some income into the business,” says Waugh. “We know those feelings and they’re not easy so we’re lucky that we’re able to work within the confines of the restrictions and we haven’t been totally shut down overnight. We’ve had opportunities to diversify and have a crack at it.”

Their biggest learning? “You never really know what’s around the corner. We moved into this warehouse in January last year and we were so busy we hadn’t had a celebration with all our family and friends and colleagues. So we had a big party at the end of February and we had such a great time. Two weeks later we’re watching the dollar drop and everything change and it’s like, ‘Whoa, wow.’ It really can change so quickly. But we feel like we can get through this. We might not have much savings left in the bank but we’ll get through this.

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