Originally Published MPMN September 2005
Medical Device Suppliers in New England
Educational resources and dedicated workers build a foundation for success in the region.
American philosopher and educator John Dewey once said, "To find out what one is fitted to do, and to secure an opportunity to do it, is the key to happiness." The Vermont-born Dewey could well have been talking about the people of New England, not to mention the medical manufacturers and suppliers that call the region home.
Comprised of six states—Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont—the region has a total population of approximately 14 million, making up less than 5% of the U.S. population, based on 2003 U.S. Census data. Yet an estimated 36,000 people in New England work in medical manufacturing, putting it in second place after California for the highest number of employees in the medical device industry.
The seeds of manufacturing were planted soon after the first settlers arrived. Early New Englanders found it difficult to farm the land in large lots, as was common in the South. By 1750, shipbuilding, fishing, and trade were the main sources of income. In their business dealings, residents gained a reputation for hard work, thrift, and ingenuity. When the Industrial Revolution reached America in the early 19th century, these traits came in quite handy. New factories sprang up in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island to produce such goods as clothing, rifles, and clocks.
In the 20th century, aerospace and military manufacturing plants were added to the mix, building the area’s reputation for precision metal machining and product design. Today, the area is host to many medical device manufacturers. Many OEMs that used to primarily serve the aerospace industry have found that their skills in machining and metal fabrication lend themselves to medical device design and production.
According to a 2004 report by the Biomedical Engineering and Alliance Consortium (BEACON; Hartford, CT; www.beaconalliance.org), at least 314 medical device companies can be found along the I-91 corridor, which covers a large portion of western Massachusetts and central Connecticut. BEACON’s report goes on to say that the availability of precision manufacturing facilities, the proximity to Boston and New York, and access to universities and medical centers are among the advantages of operating a medical device manufacturing business in the corridor. Frank O’Brien, president of O’Brien Compliance (Lowell, MA; www.obcompman.com) sums it up by saying, "With medical manufacturing, it always comes down to venture capital and doctors with ideas."
The Cream of the Crop
Many New England–based medical device company executives say that the area’s workforce is beyond compare. Most attribute the volume of highly skilled workers to the large number of universities in the area. Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), MIT, the University of Connecticut’s Institute of Material Sciences, Northeastern, and the University of Massachusetts at Lowell are among the schools that manufacturers work with to bring the best and brightest to their facilities. "Some of the best design engineers for medical devices are in this area. They know the technology, they know metals, they know coatings that can be put on metals," says Tech-Etch Inc. (Plymouth, MA; www.tech-etch.com) president George Keeler.
"We’ve got skilled talent in electromechanical, analog, and digital engineering," adds Joseph Carlone, president and CEO of Linemaster Switch Corp. (Woodstock, CT; www.linemaster.com).
Many companies have made concentrated efforts to work with local educational systems to recruit employees. NP Medical (Clinton, MA; www.npmedical.com) gains access to cutting-edge medical technology by partnering with WPI’s bioengineering institute. Eagle Stainless Steel (Franklin, MA; www.eagletube.com) has a co-op program with the local vocational school, and has found it to be invaluable. "The kids that we’ve had through the program have been exceptional," says president Robert Bubencik. "Some have even gone on to become full-time employees."
Aside from the universities, suppliers are very vocal about their respect for the workers. "I’m really proud of the workforce in this area," states Jim Binch, president and CEO of Memry Corp. (Bethel, CT; www.memry.com). "We have productive, dedicated workforces with very low turnover rates."
Other manufacturers agree. "I’m here because of the people," says Bubencik. "We have a lot of smart people who are willing to learn and want to work with us."
A Veritable Smorgasbord
There’s a mind-boggling array of manufacturers and suppliers in New England. From automation to sensors, from polymers to metals, from tubing to flexible circuit boards—all can be found within just a few hours’ drive of Boston. Many companies with a global presence are headquartered in the region, such as Millipore (Billerica, MA; www.millipore.com), Nypro Inc. (Clinton, MA; www.nypro.com), MicroSpec Corp. (Peterborough, NH; www.microspec.com), and Memry Corp.
A number of companies providing switches and sensors are located in the area. Hypertronics (Hudson, MA; www.hypertronics.com) offers modular, circular, PCB, and off-the-shelf connectors to medical OEMs. The company’s core technology revolves around Hypertac, a patented contact system in which the shape of the contact sleeve is formed by wires strung at an angle to the socket’s axis. When the pin is inserted into this sleeve, the wires stretch around it, providing a number of linear contact paths and 360° of wrap. "Using this technology, the connector is impervious to shock and vibration, and will last for millions of fretting cycles," says executive vice president Stuart Morris-Hipkins.
"Each one of the sockets, no matter how small, has at least five wires, so we can achieve high currents," adds medical industry manager Arnie Feinberg. The contact system is also made with nonmagnetic materials for use in MRI equipment.
Another switch-making company is Linemaster Switch Corp. Founded in the 1930s, the firm provides foot switch solutions for medical applications. Its latest products include infrared and linear wireless foot switches, both of which are geared toward creating a "wireless operating room."
There are also a high number of polymer suppliers and plastics manufacturers in the area. Memry Corp., a provider of shape-memory alloy solutions for more than 20 years, recently acquired Putnam Plastics in order to offer more-sophisticated polymers as well as total component assembly, according to Binch. "We’re increasingly combining shape memory with polymer extrusions," he adds. He has rave reviews for local polymer supplier Foster Corp. (Putnam, CT; www.fostercomp.com), which offers a full line of medical-grade thermoplastic and fluoropolymer compounds for extrusion and injection molding.
Other New England manufacturers focus on components such as filters, check valves, and pumps. NP Medical, a division of Nypro Inc., manufactures fluid-control products. Offerings include antisiphon and needleless valves. In a move to broaden its scope, the company recently purchased a line of IV filtration products from long-time customer Millipore. The Lee Co. (Westbrook, CT; www.theleeco.com) supplies a range of components that includes miniature solenoid valves, dual-metering flow-control valves, and dispensing pumps.
Several firms supply high-precision services in metal fabrication, etching, and tubing. Tech-Etch uses photoetching, chemical milling, and laser machining to manufacture precision parts for medical use. The company also produces flexible printed circuits, which have been used in ultrasound equipment and in patient-monitoring devices. High-tolerance thermoplastic tubing can be manufactured by Dunn Industries Inc. (Manchester, NH; www.dunnindustries.com). Specializing in the extrusion of medical-grade tubing, the company offers tubing in sizes as small as 0.01-in. OD X 0.005-in. ID, and as large as 0.25 in.
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