Medical Device Industry Lagging Technology Adoption

I remember when I first entered the medical device industry right out of school. I was told that the company I was about to join hand-crafted all the products they sold. As a kid who had just finished engineering school, I had my own ideas about what “hand-crafted” meant. In my mind, I imagined a person operating a high-tech piece of equipment to spit out medical devices. It was the late 1990s, and we were in the middle of a tech bubble.

Nope. I was wrong. When the term hand-crafted was used, it was literal. People sitting at work benches with hair nets on and all sorts of heat sources and hand tools to shape and make medical devices.

Before starting my career in the medical device industry, I imagined it would be a plethora of hi-tech innovation. After day one in the industry, I quickly learned that this may not be the case.

Don’t misunderstand me. There are countless examples of medical devices that are among the most hi-tech products known to man. However, behind the scenes at many medical device companies, the story is quite different.

Rise of Manufacturing

After many years with my first employer, I thought the next stops in my career would see medical device companies with state-of-the-art manufacturing processes. However, more times than not, the examples of manufacturing processes I’ve observed and been a part of in the medical device industry are anything but.

The American manufacturing boom actually began in the late 18th century, as the U.S. shifted from agriculture to the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution flourished during the 1800s up until just a few short years ago. In the late 1950s through the 1990s, American automotive manufacturing dominated. Medical device manufacturing followed suit.

In fact many of the tools and processes used to manufacture cars and other industrial products seemed to set the stage for the medical device industry. So much so, that many of these tools and processes originally developed for automotive were only slightly modified and tweaked so that they could “fit” medical device. For decades this strategy (or maybe actually lack thereof) has worked well enough.

Fall of Manufacturing

We all know about the decline of Detroit and the automotive industry. The economy definitely hinged on the state of the automotive industry. But in a way that the world experienced a shift from agrarian society to the industrial revolution, in the 1990s we started another major shift.

The world began to shift from manufacturing to technology. The rise of personal computers contributed largely to this. And then the internet exploded and pretty soon it seemed like every commercial was about a brand new dot com.

Technology Explosion

Okay, you can easily argue that the tech bubble of the late 1990s / early 2000s did burst. Even so, technology is definitely here to stay. In fact, today, we are immersed in a new technology revolution.

Nearly everyone has at least one computer. And many of the computers of today are laptops and tablets–no more desktop PCs.

Cell phones. Need I say more? Everyone has a smartphone. Even kids in grade school.

Social media is everywhere. Facebook, twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and so on.

Apps. There really is an app for everything.

How has this impacted the medical device industry?

From a manufacturing standpoint, I would argue that the medical device industry is generally very similar to the way it was 25 years ago.  Automated, hi-tech processes rarely dominate medical device manufacturing.

Technology has changed the way we go through our days. But when those of us cross-over that imaginary line from our personal lives into our medical device careers, it seems as though the digital revolution is many times non-existent in this industry.

There are pockets here and there. And the emergence of healthcare-related apps for smartphones is a noticeable example.

But because the medical device industry has been so slow to adapt to the digital revolution, is this industry that designs, develops, and manufactures products that will save and improve qualities of millions and millions of lives going to be left behind?

“If companies fail to embrace a digital strategy that fuels its innovation machine, they risk displacement from new competitors that will create more valued offerings, and they may miss opportunities to create new revenue sources.”

Another point to keep in mind is today’s work force. The manufacturing juggernauts who entered the workforce in the 1960s and 1970s are all approaching retirement. The new workforce was likely born in the 1990s. They probably don’t remember a world with rotary phones or before the internet. Yet the infrastructure and policies of much of the medical device industry was established at least a generation or two before today’s millenials.

There Is Hope

During the past decade or so, there seems to be two extremes in the medical device industry who are sorta / kinda starting to really get the technology-driven world we live in. Surprisingly, the medical device “big boys” are really starting to embrace the digital revolution, realizing that there is no other alternative.

At the other extreme is the medical device startup community. I’ve had the pleasure to be a part of several early stage developers that are very much a technology play. Devices that have slick user interfaces and seem to be very much like the smartphones we all carry around.

Yet despite this, our industry still sometimes seems to be very much cloak and dagger–fearing their competitors are going to steal their latest and greatest innovations. It seems like it still might be a while before the medical device industry really embraces the benefits of social media and the entire gamut of the digital revolution.


Jon Speer has been in the medical device industry for over 16 years. In 2007, Jon started Creo Quality to help medical device companies with project management, quality systems, and regulatory submissions. As a result of his experience in the medical device industry, Jon had an idea to develop a software solution to improve how companies handles Design Controls. Because of this was born. You can find him on Google+,Twitter, and LinkedIn

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