Competition was stiff in the Medical Technology Company of the Year category at the 2012 Irish Medical Technology Industry Excellence Awards held in Galway, Ireland, on 13 December. Ultimately, Lake Region Medical (LRM) Ltd prevailed because it had something that could not be claimed by the other finalists—Stryker, DePuy and Hollister—or, indeed, any other medical device manufacturer in Europe: the Shingo Accreditation Bronze Medallion. Barry O’Leary, CEO, IDA Ireland, presented the award to Vice President of Operations John Harris at the awards ceremony in front of 350-plus attendees representing all aspects of Ireland’s dynamic device sector. I spoke with Harris a few hours before the ceremony, and asked him why he decided to chase the Shingo. The motivation was partly about self preservation.
The Shingo is described as the “Nobel prize of manufacturing” and recognises operational excellence via a rigorous certification process. For LRM, entering this competition was a natural progression of its commitment to continuous improvement of manufacturing operations since the early 2000s.
“We are a subsidiary of a US company and I am always looking for something to set us apart and exhibit leadership qualities vis-a-vis the headquarters,” explains Harris. (Based in Chaska, MN, USA, LRM is an original development manufacturer of medical devices for some of the world’s leading medical technology companies. In Ireland, it operates facilities in New Ross and Galway.) “We came across the Shingo programme while visiting a UK aerospace workshop. It seemed like a great way to benchmark ourselves globally.”
The company performed preaudits in 2010 and 2011 “to identify areas where we were deficient.” LRM took the plunge and underwent a proper Shingo assessment in May 2012, earning the bronze medallion in the process. “It’s important to note that the Shingo is the top award and there is a silver award, as well,” Harris says modestly. Even placing third is quite an achievement, however, when you consider that LRM is not only the first medical device manufacturer in Europe to be recognised by the body but also the first manufacturer of any kind in Ireland to garner the prize. Harris already has laid out a roadmap for the next two years with the goal of “applying for recertification in 2015 and, we hope, winning the Shingo.”
To continue to punch above its weight, Ireland, like LRM, must keep its eye on the prize, says Harris. “Ireland’s medical device industry has gone from strength to strength over the last five years of recession. It’s embarrassing at times when you’re at a dinner party and so many other people are going through difficult times,” he says. “It’s almost like we’re living in a bubble—the [economy] does not seem to have affected us.” Still, he notes, that’s no reason to be complacent.
“Our challenge is to have the full value stream here in Ireland. LRM began in manufacturing and we have evolved into a centre of manufacturing excellence.” LRM’s acquisition of Brivant and its FDA-registered facility in 2009 was a great help. “That was a tremendous success for us. We are now developing our own products, have set up our own processes, with our own regulatory system and customer service group,” says Harris.
For Ireland’s medtech industry as a whole, Harris sees a bright future, but also some challenges: notably, controlling labour costs and ensuring a ready supply of qualified engineers. For the latter, in addition to ensuring that the nation’s educational system remains world class, Harris recommends instituting an apprenticeship programme modelled after the German system.
LRM has a programme in place that places a couple of employees each year on an apprenticeship track to an engineering degree. “We have been lobbying the government and other companies to support this type of programme. Imagine if all of the medical device manufacturers in Ireland offered this opportunity to a couple of employees each year,” says Harris. “Industry would have a pool of qualified engineers year in and year out.”
In the meantime, LRM is looking forward to a productive and profitable 2013, offsetting cost cutting pressure from customers by helping them to “look at the entire value stream, from product design to the hospital shelves, and see where we can remove non-value from the supply chain.” Identifying inefficiencies and consolidating the supply chain can be a path to cost savings, he stresses. In addition, LRM can offer guidance on product design and development. The company has set up physician review boards, for example. “We can say to our customers, with authority, here is where we think we should be going,” says Harris.
LRM is not an isolated case. If the success stories and celebratory mood on display at the Irish Medical Industry Excellence Awards 2012 in Galway are any indication, Ireland’s medtech ecosystem as a whole has nothing to fear in 2013, except, maybe, some uncomfortable dinner parties.