When sectors meet, they innovate

The West Midlands’ rich industrial heritage is still reflected in the predominance of heavy industry in the region. Less visible though is the presence of the region’s medical technology sector. The two industries may seem poles apart, but the transfer of skills and knowledge from one to the other could prove to be of growing importance in the region’s economic health and to the survival of new and long established companies.

Can medical engineering breathe new life into an established industry?

On paper, the number of medical technology companies in the West Midlands appears to be relatively low, so it’s difficult to see how they could exert a major influence on the region’s massive engineering sector. But appearances can be deceptive. Because activities in many of these companies typically span a number of sectors, they can be difficult to identify. The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills places the number at 442 in the West Midlands* which represents the highest concentration of medical technology companies in the UK, so the importance of this emerging sector should not be underestimated.

The very fact that ‘med tech’ companies defy classification makes it easier for them to tap into opportunities and expertise from outside their immediate sector. Likewise, during times of recession heavy industries such as automotive and aerospace have increasingly looked to other sectors, where their skills and technologies could be applied. The medical technology sector presents some very attractive opportunities for engineering companies wishing to diversify.

An injection of fresh thinking and the benefit of highly developed problem solving skills honed in the engineering industry could be just what the medical technologies sector needs in order to innovate and grow business.

Fiona Berryman, who completed her PhD at the University of Wolverhampton, is an engineer with experience in the aeronautical industry and spent 12 years working for the bearing manufacturer SKF in the Netherlands. For Fiona, the potential to adapt her expertise for use in the medical engineering sector was an opportunity too good to miss. Her in-depth knowledge of signal analysis transferred seamlessly into this new environment.

“I found I could equally apply the theory of signal analysis to my work developing a system called ISIS2 for the measurement of 3D back shape in patients with spinal deformities such as scoliosis. I was able to transfer all the experience I had over to another application.”

Fiona’s engineering skills not only enabled her to adapt the technology for use in a medical environment, but also to make it suitable for practical use. She has developed a fully automated system which clinical staff can easily use. ISIS2 is currently in regular use in the NHS spinal deformity clinics at the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre, Oxford and the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital, Birmingham – where she now works as a Clinical Scientist. Fiona believes that more engineers should follow her lead:

“Engineers must be prepared to use their skills for a different application, perhaps initially out of their comfort zone. The key is flexibility and a willingness to look at the skills available from a different viewpoint. The transfer of existing skills from engineering to the medical technologies sector, rather than developing skills from scratch, will save development time and should help companies get products to market faster.”

When it comes to the transfer of skills between these two sectors, conditions tend to favour regions with a relatively ‘new’ manufacturing sector, whose technologies and manufacturing processes can be adapted more readily.

So, the West Midlands may face a greater challenge than most due to its legacy of mature heavy engineering. But according to Chris Dyke, Connectivity Director at life science industry association MedilinkWM, opportunities exist which the sector can’t afford to ignore:

“There are numerous opportunities for the region’s stalwart companies to apply their current technologies and skills to the medical and healthcare market, but it will take some investment in time and research. Precision machining and CADCAM skills are becoming more necessary in the dental market, and companies providing pressed and turned parts to Formula One and aerospace clients are finding new markets with orthopaedic implants and hospital equipment.”

As an emerging sector, medical technology companies understand the value of innovation. However, the current economic climate has not been kind to those seeking to innovate. In December 2009 my M-link, a medical and healthcare business opportunity organisation, surveyed its members. The poll revealed that during the recent economic turmoil, 33% of businesses had diverted their efforts from developing new products in favour of penetrating new markets with their current offerings.

The freeze on innovation could prove to be a false economy in the long term. Without the development of new products, materials, and techniques, the medical technologies sector is unable to move into higher value-added markets. By originating high value-added goods, for instance products associated with radiography and scanning, the sector stands to grow it’s business and arm itself against competition from low cost centres of production. Chris Dyke observes that companies who diversify have everything to gain:

“… we have seen numerous companies not only move into this rapidly-expanding market, but find real niches for their products and services, and reap the commercial rewards.”
Visit: www.wlv.ac.uk/innovationsupport