Manufacturing UpdateSept. 3, 2012

Innovation driving small companies

Medtronic, junior college collaborate on machining coursework

Manufacturing: Plant expansions head toward completion

SANTA ROSA -- The Medtronic CardioVascular division in Santa Rosa is beefing up its manufacturing operations to turn out more prototypes more quickly, according to endovascular therapies R&D lab manager Joe Wilson.

About 30 Medtronic technicians completed the first two semesters of a machining course at the Santa Rosa Junior College and are ready to begin the next course in the fall. Other employees are waiting to begin the training.

In addition to bringing more manufacturing in-house Medtronic is assuring itself a supply of machine-savvy workers, hard to find now that there are fewer high school industrial shop classes due to lack of funding and increased emphasis on academics.  

[caption id="attachment_60993" align="alignleft" width="360"] Medtronic employees hone their milling and lathing skills at the Santa Rosa Junior College.[/caption]

“We looked around at our lab operations and saw we were depending on other companies to supply most of our basic manufacturing,” said Mr. Wilson, a 13-year veteran of Medtronic’s endovascular operations.  “We have lots of very smart technicians and engineers, but we were badly lacking in basic metal-working skills.”

He approached Jim Kelly, chair of the Industrial Trade Technology department and the tool technology instructor at the junior college, and asked for a special expedited course in milling and lathing for a group of Medtronic workers.

“I told him we’d teach them, but not in a quickie course,” said Mr. Kelly, a former metal shop owner with 40 years of machining experience.

“You don’t hurry up instruction in a machine lab. The basics of milling and lathing are all about safety, and milling and lathing are two separate operations that demand their own safely measures and take a full semester each to learn.”

Medtronic has accordingly accommodated itself to the semester system, with workers filling in for their colleagues on course days. Mr. Wilson took the initial course along with his employees, which included technicians and engineers of both sexes.

“At first there was some skepticism, but as we advanced through the coursework we started having fun and word got around,” he said. “Making things in a shop allows you to be creative and it’s very satisfying to learn how to use the machines.”

In July, the first group of Medtronic employees was ready to advance to using the CNC (computer numerical control) machines while a waiting list of workers was growing at the company.

“It’s surprising the amount of enthusiasm Jim Kelly has generated among out staff. And some of the students are turning out to be real standouts,” said Mr. Wilson.

One Medtronic participant in the program used his new skills to develop a new, simpler means of stent production that is already in use at the company’s manufacturing operation in Mexico, he said.

Also, endovascular therapies R&D lab workers have put their new training to work developing a prototype of a new stent graft for repairing the descending thoracic aorta without major surgery.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently selected the prototype as one of nine new products for its pilot early feasibility program that allows clinical evaluation to be fast-tracked.

That’s a feather in the cap of the lab, which is experiencing a burst of creativity.

“We can be more flexible with new products and keep costs down at the same time,” said Mr. Wilson.

“It’s great to see the Medtronic equipment being used again,” said Mr. Kelly, who conducts several sessions at Medtronic to acquaint the workers with their own mills, lathes and CNC machines. The equipment had lain dormant for several years, he said.

“For the most part Medtronic has better equipment than we do, but I’m hoping to upgrade ours in the near future. Giving these special courses has been very good for the program as a whole,” said Mr. Kelly.