Tormach - A solution for device start-up manufacturing blues

It is often the case that those on the front line in the medical sector are the ones with the innovative ideas for new products. Applications engineer Andy Grevstad explains how niche product developers can benefit from Tormach's range of personal CNC tooling machines.

One of the barriers to competition faced by small and start-up businesses within the medical industry is affordable manufacturing. Most companies outsource everything that needs machining, from prototypes and jigs to test fixtures, and even the manufacturing run itself. This approach works, but it can be slow and expensive, particularly in the start-up realm, where designers are keen to take products to market as soon as possible, so that they can start making money from the tools they're inventing.

"That's where we come in," explains Tormach's applications engineer Andy Grevstad. "According to a recent Forbes magazine article by Henry I Miller, 80% of the US medical device sector is comprised of businesses with 50 or fewer employees. We're unique in the CNC machining world because our equipment is positioned at a price point and performance level that makes it a realistic option for engineers and device designers in small companies or research teams looking for an affordable prototyping capability or a low-volume manufacturing solution."

The right size for the market

Since Tormach released its personal series of CNC milling equipment, the company has seen widespread adoption of these technologies. Tormach's PCNC mills are used in a range of diverse ways throughout the medical device sector: prototyping, low-volume manufacturing, customisation and personalisation, and toolmaking and manufacturing support.

"Customers run the gamut from product design teams in larger corporations to small companies and even individual design engineers," says Grevstad. "In the case of small businesses, PCNC mills are enabling them to bring their ideas to market quickly and affordably in a way that wasn't possible before.

"You can get one of these machines for under $10,000 and the typical packages go out for under $20,000. Tormach tools were designed to make the CNC machining more affordable, in terms of not only upfront costs but also recurring maintenance. I estimate average annual maintenance costs for the machines to be less than $500."

Tormach PCNC mills are also designed to be easy to use. In many cases, customers use the machines themselves to develop niche products, but Tormach also offers a matchmaking service through which customers are introduced to experienced independent CNC machinists who can assist with their projects.

"This has produced good results," Grevstad explains. "Recently, a large medical device company in Massachusetts [US] contracted with one of the people in our independent consultants programme to provide them with a turnkey machining solution - not just the machines but all the programming, jigs and fixtures too; everything they needed to produce a family of orthopaedic implant prototypes."

From prototyping to niche manufacturing to R&D

Another Tormach customer, Eisertech (San Diego, California), develops a range of speciality products for spinal surgery. Contract machining is a poor fit due to the large array of different implant sizes that are needed, coupled with small manufacturing volumes.

"The Tormach PCNC mill has allowed Eisertech to create those kits on demand to sell to surgeons as they are needed," explains Grevstad. "Instead of having to make a large investment in inventory, they are now agile enough to produce them on demand."

Another typical small business customer finding success with Tormach equipment is Lee Emmons, founder of EMS Dental Designs, and the inventor and patent owner of a class I medical device used to remove water and debris from the oral cavity while providing more than 180° of visibility. Emmons uses a Tormach PCNC in nearly every stage of his production cycle: from creating initial prototypes to design iterations and first article manufacture.

In Emmons' case, and with many of the companies in the medical device arena, materials are of the utmost importance. Being able to prototype in surgical stainless steel, titanium or medical-grade plastics is a big advantage. "You can quickly transition from prototype to market this way," explains Grevstad, "whereas, with a 3D printer, you have the design, but then you've still got the entire challenge of manufacturing ahead of you."

Larger organisations also have a need for these tooling solutions. For such organisations, research teams often bring in a personal CNC machine to create the tools, jigs and fixtures needed to assist with product testing: specialised specimen holders, sample collection tools and quality assurance guages, for example.

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