An employee working on the assembly of a custom factory automation system for a customer in the life sciences industry. Image courtesy of ATS Automation Tooling Systems Inc.
With the COVID-19 pandemic creating shortages of crucial products and equipment, ATS Automation Tooling Systems Inc. has stepped up to assist medical device manufacturers in scaling up production of these critical devices. ATS is also working to enable manufacturers in other industries to quickly pivot to making products used in treating or diagnosing the disease.
With more than 40 years in business, roughly 55 percent in life sciences, ATS has experience in manufacturing medical devices requiring the highest product quality. “This is the world we live in—we are used to this,” said Andrew Hider, ATS Automation’s CEO, in an interview with MD+DI. “We are a global organization and we own many different companies under our umbrella,” he said, noting that in addition to life sciences, the company has experience in the nuclear and automotive spaces. “The machines, the process, and the technology—we can build the entire production line, whether it's a portion or the full assembly,” he said.
Just this week, ATS announced that it received a $65 million order booking from Tessy Plastics to design, build, and deliver two automated manufacturing systems within the next four months. The program is expected to enable the production of 10 million units per month of critical components for point-of-care testing kits for COVID-19.
Some other recent projects the company has taken on include working with a large automaker in the United States to reconfigure its manufacturing facility. ATS delivered equipment to enable the wide-scale production of filtering face piece respirator (FFR) masks. Launch to delivery was completed in 17 days.
“That's a fairly aggressive schedule to achieve and execute,” Hider said, noting that ATS identified and built out an internal process that they were able to design for that specific space.
High-volume automated solutions are more challenging, Hider said. “When you look at product like a mask or a face shield, they're fairly straightforward,” he said. “But when you take more complex products, such as the ventilator and the test kit, it requires specialized knowledge of medical device manufacturing,” he continued. “You need to comply with quality systems, CGMPs. These can require special knowledge, and so manufacturers have to adjust to different regulations and quality management systems. It takes employment training, it takes different processes, so it’s really important to partner with a subject matter expert. And I would say that ATS really understands and knows the process.”
To that end, ATS is also working with O-Two Medical Technologies in Canada to assemble critical ventilator components at ATS facilities. And in the United States, the ATS team is supplying ventilator production test equipment to two key ventilator manufacturers.
In Italy, an ATS company, Comecer, is developing an automated bio-decontamination system for hospitals based on the same technology used in the company’s aseptic isolators. It would allow for fast decontamination of hospital rooms and equipment and potentially enable reuse of N95 masks.
The ATS team is developing a solution for a German manufacturer of COVID-19 test kits to help them ramp up production to meet unprecedented demand. Also in Germany, IVVK, which makes high-speed, high-precision packaging solutions for pharmaceutical, cosmetic, food, and related industries has developed a rapid-deployment tube-filling solution suitable for hygiene products including hand sanitizer. Its machine can fill up to 70 tubes per minute.
Above: an employee working at a product assembly station (product: ATS SuperTrak Conveyance).
When asked what lessons could be learned from these projects that could benefit medical device manufacturers, both in the short term for this crisis, and in the long term, Hider said having an agile business plan is critical. He explained that ATS had a pandemic response plan that was built into the corporation’s risk profile, adding that “Our leadership was engaged, and they are agile to be able to execute and to do business through this.”
He emphasized that companies must anticipate supply chain disruptions. “I would say ATS can help, but additionally if our customers look at their global supply chain, they're really going to have to identify where they have potential areas for opportunity.”
“I think this pandemic highlights a couple of those, but it's going to be an ongoing evolution, and it's going to be something that automation will play a key role in,” Hider said. “Our view of the world is that to have a true smart factory, you have to have automation, and then you have to have the IoT platform. You have to know everything that goes into the making of the product as well as how to manufacture the production process,” he concluded.