How process automation can boost efficiency

Australia has a vibrant medical devices industry focused on exporting its products and creating overseas markets.

Companies in the Australian medical devices industry undertake a wide range of activities including the research, development, manufacture, and distribution of products ranging from surgical gloves and syringes to artificial joints and hearts.

It has been estimated that around 17,500 people are employed in the industry. Australia represents a large and highly advanced medical device market.

The Australian market for medical equipment and supplies was estimated to be $3,823 million in 2010, equal to $177 per capita. Australia also accounts for around 1.7% of the total world market.

However, the Medical Technology Association of Australia (MTAA) estimated total annual revenue for the Australian medical technology industry to be $7.6 billion in 2009-2010 with this figure being extrapolated from various sources of data.

The industry is unique in that it imports most of what it uses (98.8%), and exports most of what it produces (97.2%), mainly to the US, New Zealand, Europe, Japan and the UK.

The global nature of the industry means that its future viability and continued success will be based on its ability to develop competitive products for export markets.

To remain competitive in a relatively high-cost economy such as Australia, the application of automation is an essential ingredient in creating sustainable medical devices manufacturing businesses.

At the heart of Cochlear's product development is one simple idea. Innovation.The right investment in modern, custom-designed, custom-built and fully installed automation solutions will enable businesses to achieve success in increasingly competitive global markets and grow exports into the rapidly developing economies of the world.

When applied appropriately the benefits are clear. Automation of the manufacturing process not only drives down costs, it improves quality, reduces waste, optimises energy use and achieves flexibility. Flexibility is important in this industry, as the need for productivity improvements is a constant challenge.

Balancing production requirements against sales forecasts in a heavily regulated industry can make this difficult. Developing a process with an eye on future automation can benefit companies if they meet their sometimes optimistic sales forecast and find themselves scrambling to meet demand.

Partnering early with a firm that has a strong experience in automation can lead to developing a process in a stepwise manner, and making the transition from a labour-intensive process to a highly productive process easier to manage.

The nature of the finished product in the medical devices industry typically means that a unique manufacturing process is required, as opposed to traditional pharma where the equipment required is typically sourced off-the-shelf.

This requirement for a unique process can provide the need for innovative ideas within large companies to improve their processes.

Consequently, this will foster opportunities for custom-engineering and automation specialist firms which can put in place plans to strategically improve a process over several years if needed with the regulatory requirements in mind.

The Australian medical devices industry is largely comprised of SMEs, in particular, companies with fewer than 10 employees. However, the top end of the industry is represented by its two truly global players: Cochlear and ResMed.

Cochlear designs, manufactures and sells the Nucleus Cochlear implant along with the Bone Conduction Hearing Solution Baha osseointegrated bone conduction implant, with an estimated 250,000 cochlear implant/Baha recipients receiving a Cochlear Limited product since their establishment in 1981.

Cochlear designs, manufactures and sells the Nucleus Cochlear implant along with the Bone Conduction Hearing Solution Baha osseointegrated bone conduction implant.At the heart of Cochlear's product development is one simple idea. Innovation.

In order to allow engineers to focus on continuing their innovation work, Cochlear outsources parts of the design and manufacturing of custom machinery for their production facilities.

Precision Mechatronics has engaged with Cochlear in several projects over the last two years. These projects have ranged from straight replication work, to automation of labour-intensive processes, as well as solving material handling challenges.

Process automation is key driver to success for companies like Cochlear. This is true in industries in Australia, as reflected in our declining rates of national productivity. Our high currency value, and relatively high labour costs among other factors make the need for an efficient process critical. Process automation can contribute significantly to this.

Precision Mechatronics has recently delivered a production prototype unit to Cochlear, which via process automation will reduce the number of people movements within the cleanroom environment by at least a magnitude.

The benchtop unit removes the need for the operator to make tens of trips within the cleanroom. This offers multiple benefits: a better working environment for the operator, a more efficient process and also importantly for this regulatory environment, a more consistent process with a reduced risk of human error.

While the development of the medical device industry is open to speculation, the presence of the big two, Cochlear and Resmed does provide an excellent pool of talent to base the growth of the industry.

Already there are several small companies that have taken the lead from these two and are looking to make the next breakthrough.

Jason Thelander is CEO Precision Mechatronics[Jason Thelander is CEO Precision Mechatronics.]

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