Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, medical device designers and manufacturers are finding it's critical to stay flexible to their customers' changing demand in order to get products to market quickly.
Because of continuing supply chain struggles, "that's something that's not going to stop," Gurvinder Singh, director of global product management at Maple Plain, Minn.-based prototype and digital manufacturing specialist Proto Labs' injection molding division, told Plastics News.
Before the pandemic began, demand for diagnostics components was already rising, Singh said. "I think that's a trend we're going to continue to see."
Over the last year, Proto Labs, which generally works in smaller volume sizes, produced somewhere between 4 million and 5 million parts for at-home COVID-19 testing kits.
Normally, the company keeps capacity open for "urgent needs," Singh said.
When the pandemic began in 2020, "all the molders were already busy because they had orders. We were not," he said.
Proto Labs made ventilator parts in the early days of the pandemic, with a short lead time to market. That speed attracted and kept on diagnostics customers, Singh said.
When demand for other medical devices used for elective surgeries and other new product development slowed, the company scaled to a much higher volume to get the diagnostic parts to mass production. "We tied up a lot of our capacity helping them ramp up," he said.
Now, Proto Labs is starting to see "a shift back to other innovations," Singh said, with overall growth for the company.
"We're starting to see a lot more digital transformation, customers being open to new ways of doing things, really to speed up innovations in those areas that were paused for the last two years," he said, adding that the company expects to see even more new product development in 2022.
Proto Labs had some challenges with labor recruitment in 2021, Singh added. Even though much of Proto Labs' processes are automated, there were still positions that went unfilled.
The company had planned to add more collaborative robots to the space, but the labor shortage last year accelerated it, he said.
With its purchase of Amsterdam-based e-commerce software company 3D Hubs Inc. in the beginning of 2021, Proto Labs gained the ability to match its customers' needs with broader manufacturing capabilities than it has on-site.
If there's a size of mold the company doesn't offer, it can find its customers another option for production. Proto Labs also has local medical partners that are certified to run production in clean rooms.
It's also working with customers to "move consumption closer to production," another trend, Singh said, isn't going anywhere.
"Companies got too passive, managing the supply chain just with a cost factor," he said. "With all the supply challenges we've seen, they're starting to rethink in terms of value and in term of risk. The longer the supply chain, the more risk."
Customers that can no longer sustainably get parts from overseas are creating even more demand for the company, he said.