The digital revolution under way in medtech manufacturing will continue to transform the industry into a more connected, efficient, and agile ecosystem. However, the challenge for many companies is to plot the best way to embrace various existing and new technologies and move toward smarter manufacturing — their version of the “factory of the future.” Every company is at a different stage of digital transformation. Some companies are wholeheartedly piloting, integrating, and scaling disruptive technologies within their operations in a bid to realize greater supply chain and internal operational benefits. Others are at a different place in their digital journey, identifying incremental opportunity areas where they can demonstrate initial impact and justify further investment.
With digital disruption considered not an if but a when for medtech manufacturing, companies recognize the need to seek optimal strategies for moving toward this brave new world. It is not a straightforward task to get the most out of the next level of connectedness and digitization within a factory enabled by AI, automation, robotics/cobots, visualization, additive manufacturing, and other technologies. Simply layering on new technologies alone is inadequate given the enormous complexity and cost of doing so. A better choice is taking a holistic approach that considers not just integrating systems and technologies, but also making smart decisions that take into account human factors. Companies must consider upskilling and retraining staff, ensuring the future supply of tech workers and staying ahead of issues like cyber-security. This is all done with a view to creating tighter bonds with stakeholders such as suppliers, specialists, researchers, and even other medtech firms.
Collaboration Is Key
Collaborative convergence between companies, academia, and supportive government programs can drive business growth and fuel the medtech factory of the future. A concept seen in Europe’s medtech sector is clustering, in which stakeholders are linking up in new, mutually beneficial ways. They can accelerate development and lower costs by jointly tapping into programs, institutions, and funding. These companies also can access advanced technologies and expertise like cybersecurity, blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI), etc. — all of which are key Industry 4.0 enablers of digital transformation.
In Europe, one can find truly vibrant networks of multinational and domestic medtech companies that are closely connected and supported by engaged proactive industry groups and associations. Besides sharing resources and engaging around mutual challenges and opportunities, such clustering can facilitate industry awareness of best-in-class practices to drive business forward.
Deepening ties to existing resources like research organizations, training centers, and government programs is an important part of developing an effective cluster. In fact, partnering in general can help medtech companies enormously when it comes to digitization, such as alliances with firms outside medtech that are leading in key areas such as industrial automation, systems integration, AI, machine learning, big data, cybersecurity, and others. The technological convergence that is redefining many industries is notable in medtech; creating linkages with companies that have demonstrated expertise in applying and integrating these technologies provides a lower risk and quicker path to moving forward.
Exploiting Overseas Clusters
A natural by-product of globalization and exponential levels of connectivity has been the establishment of overseas operations by U.S. medtech firms where they can tap into existing clusters and new sources of talent and expertise. For example, 9 of the top 10 U.S. technology companies as well as 14 of the top 15 global medtech companies have operations in Ireland, where they benefit from an ecosystem that includes an experienced talent pool with a solid regulatory track record, a highly connected sub-supply base, and industry-focused research centers. Ireland also offers attractive R&D funding opportunities, such as the 25 percent R&D Tax Credit and the €500 million Disruptive Technologies Innovation Fund. Local and multi-national medtech companies are eligible for this funding, which encourages collaboration in new technology areas that will create products and solutions with commercial impact. Examples of this are collaborative projects in AI for cancer cell detection with IBM, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, and a pathology startup Deciphex, as well as a project in smart wearables with Analog Devices, Henkel, Sanmina, and the Tyndall National Institute. This fund is one example among multiple sources of R&D financial support available in the EU that U.S. companies can exploit through their overseas subsidiaries.
One of the lures for U.S. medtech companies considering an overseas operation is the abundance of government-funded centers with expertise available to any company, foreign or domestic, doing business there. Such centers are plentiful in Europe. For example, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), Ireland’s agency for fundamental research, has launched two new research centers focused on Industry 4.0. In partnership with industry, the CONFIRM research center located near the University of Limerick performs cutting-edge research on smart manufacturing with a focus on wireless factories, digital twins, and predictive maintenance. The iForm Research Center is dedicated to advancing research in additive technologies. Another industry-led technology center, the Irish Manufacturing Research Center, has extensive experience working with companies in automation and advanced control, design for (additive) manufacturing, and sustainable manufacturing. These and many other centers are enabling and supporting rapidly growing levels of convergence between technology and life science companies.
Complementing these research and technology centers and offering help to companies that want to focus on the practical adoption, deployment, and training on smart manufacturing technologies, IDA Ireland is leading on the launch of a National Advanced Manufacturing Centre (AMC). The AMC will provide a world-class collaborative environment focused on the acceleration of core technologies to digitize Ireland’s discrete manufacturing base and supply chain partners. Having the AMC in place will ensure that Ireland’s connected manufacturing ecosystem is served by national resources that span from fundamental research through to applied technology deployment — at scale.
Ireland has a solid track record of investing in national infrastructure to drive industry collaboration and up-skilling in key industries and sectors. All of the top 10 global pharma companies have significant manufacturing operations in Ireland. The state-supported National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training (NIBRT) has become a global center of excellence for training and research in bioprocessing, helping Ireland to build its position as a leading destination for global biotech companies. The AMC is intended to do the same for advanced manufacturing, particularly in the discrete space.
U.S. Medtech Companies Benefiting from Clustering
In a global marketplace, establishing overseas operations is nothing new for many U.S. medtech companies. However, several global medtech leaders have particularly embraced collaboration and clustering to drive forward in their industry. DePuy Synthes and Stryker have been recognized internationally for their adoption and application of Industry 4.0 technologies at their key strategic sites in Ireland.
DePuy Synthes’ Irish site was recently ranked by the World Economic Forum as one of nine global lighthouses in its use of IoT technologies. The company has invested €36 million through its Ireland Innovation Centre to advance materials science in 3D printing. Stryker also has been particularly active in advancing new technologies and innovation. It’s a global leader in 3D printed titanium implants and operates the largest additive manufacturing plant of its type in the world in Cork, Ireland.
Clustering Helps Give Access to More Technologies
To be most effective, a medtech cluster — be it domestic or overseas — should include companies and research organizations focused on moving toward Industry 4.0. For example, as AI becomes ubiquitous across many technologies, it is making its way into many aspects of the factory of the future. Linking with AI experts, researchers, and academic institutions delivers obvious benefits to medtech sector. Besides giving new capabilities to robotics, AI is essential in analyzing factory data and performing predictive analytics. The payoffs are clear: AI predicts and reveals the locations of real and potential problems within manufacturing processes and equipment, saving vital time and resources in complex, demanding manufacturing environments.
Investment and work in AI is increasing rapidly worldwide, creating more sources than ever that can be tapped for a medtech cluster. One report stated that this effort is particularly active in Europe and Asia, and thus companies seeking to boost their utilization of the latest AI technology should analyze the locations of sources that can help achieve their goals.1 Europe, in particular, has been aggressively moving forward, with one example being the European Lab for Learning and Intelligent Systems (Ellis), a proposed AI institute with centers in various countries.2 Europe’s AI centers are plentiful, often operating in partnership with top technical universities. In fact, Europe has the largest share of the top 100 AI research institutions worldwide.3 Within Europe, Ireland has the highest number of EurAI Fellows per capita, delivering broad and deep expertise to industry.
Many countries have set up research centers dedicated to pursuing a wide variety of advanced technologies. However, for medtech companies looking for collaborative opportunities, the most effective research centers will be those with a focus on industry participation and programs aimed at commercial deployment. For example, SFI has funded two fundamental research centers focused on big data and analytics — Insight and ADAPT. Insight is one of the largest big data and data analytics research centers in Europe, and ADAPT concentrates on helping companies transform diverse content and data into meaningful insights. CeADAR is Ireland’s National Center for Applied Data Analytics and AI. Its mission is to link applied research with real-world solutions, offering strengths in areas such as predictive analytics, machine learning, block-chain, and other subjects of interest in advanced medical manufacturing. Together, this ecosystem of fundamental and applied research centers offers tremendous resources to a vibrant industry base.
The People Factor
The potential displacement of people with automation, robots, and/or AI should be broached sensitively within any discussion of digitization and Industry 4.0. However, the human element of the manufacturing industry is an essential consideration when plotting a path to the factory of the future. Many workers will benefit from technology taking on high volume, repetitive tasks previously done by humans, freeing them up to concentrate on work that is higher value, knowledge intensive and, in many cases, far more interesting. To achieve this balance, it’s imperative that upskilling and retraining is part of a cohesive effort to move to a smarter factory model.
The change in skills required from workers is another important issue. While lower-skilled work is becoming less prevalent as the industry embraces new technology, these more complex technologies create a larger need for technically proficient, “digitally enabled” workers who can operate tomorrow’s factory. Already in short supply domestically across all industries, these technical professionals will be essential to keep pace with new technologies and software, systems, and process engineering required in a digital world. This is another area where collaboration can make a significant difference.
Creating ties to appropriate academic institutions — whether domestically or abroad — is a great option for medtech companies, especially with firms actively engaged in designing focused training programs in consort with these organizations. Such efforts are well under way in Europe, where some U.S. medtech companies have chosen to locate operations in areas with large labor pools of skilled tech talent and join forces with local institutions to create post-graduate training. Aligning with industry needs, three AI-related masters programs were created at the University of Limerick through a collaboration between a government-funded program, industry, and academia. In addition, Cork Institute of Technology is now the home for Cyber Ireland, a cross industry-academic-government initiative to drive skills development and collaboration in this important space.
Engaging with clusters and fellow collaborators is a solid option when on the path toward more digital transformation and Industry 4.0. This means developing strong ties among other companies, government, research centers, and academic institutions at home or abroad — wherever it can best be accomplished. The nature of the factory of the future means that the digital journey won’t ever be completed — new technologies will continue to emerge, evolve, and mature. But operating in open, agile business environments that embrace innovation, collaboration, and upskilling will allow companies to adopt the latest technologies as they come on stream.
- N. Statt, “The AI Boom Is Happening All Over the World, and It’s Accelerating Quickly,” The Verge, Dec. 12, 2018.
- Ian Sample, “Scientists Plan Huge European AI Hub to Compete with US,” The Guardian, April 23, 2018.
- “Europe IS Home to the World’s Leading AI Research Community,” The State of European Tech 2017.
This article was written by Rachel Shelly, Senior Vice President, Medical Technologies; and Dr. Toby Sainsbury, Technologist; Engineering & Industrial Technologies Department at IDA Ireland, Dublin, Ireland. For more information, visit here .