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How automation builds businesses in Australia’s medical devices industry

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article image Precision Mechatronics delivered a production prototype unit to Cochlear (different machine pictured), which via process automation will reduce the number of people movements within the cleanroom environment
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Australia has a vibrant medical devices industry with companies undertaking a wide range of activities including research, development, manufacture and distribution of products from surgical gloves and syringes to artificial joints and hearts.

Employing around 17,500 people, Australia’s highly advanced medical devices industry is focused on exporting its products and creating overseas markets. The industry imports most of what it uses (98.8%), and exports most of what it produces (97.2%), mainly to the USA, 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.

The Australian market for medical equipment and supplies was estimated to be US$4,027 million in 2010, equal to US$187 per capita, with Australia accounting for around 1.7% of the total world market.

However, the Medical Technology Association of Australia (MTAA) estimates total annual revenue for the Australian medical technology industry to be $7.6 billion in 2009-2010.

Automation essential to drive growth

Automation is a key driver in creating sustainable medical devices manufacturing businesses and remaining competitive in a relatively high-cost economy such as Australia. Automation of the manufacturing process not only drives costs down, it also improves quality, reduces waste, optimises energy use and achieves flexibility.

Partnering early with a firm that has strong experience in automation can lead to developing a process in a methodical way, easing the transition from a labour-intensive process to a highly productive process for the manufacturing company.

Unique manufacturing processes

The nature of the finished product in the medical devices industry typically requires a unique manufacturing process, as opposed to traditional pharma where the equipment 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, offering an opportunity for companies such as custom-engineering and automation specialist Precision Mechatronics to utilise its niche skill-set.

Precision Mechatronics’ expert team of engineers can put in place plans to strategically improve a process over several years if needed, in compliance with regulatory requirements.

While the Australian medical devices industry is largely comprised of SMEs, in particular, companies with fewer than 10 employees, 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.

Innovation is a key component of Cochlear’s product development process wherein engineers are allowed to focus on continuing their innovation work while parts of the design and manufacturing of custom machinery for their production facilities are outsourced. Precision Mechatronics has engaged with Cochlear in several projects over the last two years.

Global player Cochlear benefits from custom automation

Precision Mechatronics’ work for Cochlear has ranged from straight replication work involving re-producing custom machinery already designed and built previously by Cochlear projects to custom solutions development projects ranging from the automation of labour-intensive processes to solving material handling challenges.

Precision Mechatronics’ contribution to this process includes design, build, quality management and comprehensive documentation.

Process automation is a key driver to success for companies such as Cochlear, given that the high Australian currency value and relatively high labour costs among other factors make the need for an efficient process critical.

Precision Mechatronics recently delivered a production prototype unit to Cochlear, which via process automation will reduce the number of people movements within the cleanroom environment significantly. By eliminating the need for human intervention in mundane and repetitive manufacturing tasks, employees are freed up to work on other tasks that not only make better use of their capabilities but also provide a better return against their costs.

Several small companies have today taken the lead from the big two, Cochlear and ResMed and are looking to make the next breakthrough with process automation.

This feature by Jason Thelander, CEO - Precision Mechatronics, North Ryde, NSW is presented by Ferret - www.ferret.com.au.

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