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.

Stryker’s Anngrove facility houses its AMagine Institute, which develops additive manufacturing products. Stryker opened an additive manufacturing-focused global technology center in 2017.

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.