Vexos worked with Elemaster Group and JMP Solutions to manufacture the Mechanical Ventilator Milano (MVM), an electrically operated, microprocessor-controlled, pneumatically driven machine. The project truly was a collaborative effort: Elemaster designed the ventilator, JPM Solutions made the mechanical sub-assembly, and Vexos provided the electronics (and tested the device).
“We recognized the need to partner with an experienced EMS organization with strong manufacturing and supply chain presence in the medical sector, and the ability to meet U.S. and Canadian regulatory requirements,” Elemaster President/CEO Gabriele Cogliati said. “In Vexos, we have a partner that aligns with us and our goal, to provide the MVM Ventilator globally.”
Such partnerships were commonplace in the pandemic’s early days as companies from all walks of life (including healthcare) turned to EMS providers for help in navigating COVID-19-induced supply chain challenges and equipment shortages. Their expertise particularly was crucial in maintaining device connectivity and meeting the skyrocketing demand for telehealth services and remote patient monitoring technology.
Medical Product Outsourcing’s January/February feature, Virtual Allies, examines the key role EMS providers played in helping address the medtech industry’s quickly-changing needs. Gary Fairhead, president and CEO of SigmaTron International, was among the experts interviewed for the story. His full input is provided in the following Q&A.
Michael Barbella: What are customers demanding of their EMS providers?
Gary Fairhead: If anything, the challenges we’ve all faced in 2020 have created a more collaborative working environment. There have been demand shifts both up and down that fall outside of normal forecast windows and disruptions that have impacted operations around the world. Both EMS and customer teams recognize the uniqueness of the challenges we face, so the focus this year has been on finding viable solutions on a changing playing field. There also seems to be more interest in EMS companies building the entire product and there continues to be cost sensitivity, driven by cost pressure in the medical industry.
Barbella: What qualities do OEMs look for in selecting EMS providers? How has this changed over the last five years (if at all)?
Fairhead: The basics of quality, competitive cost and on-time delivery are still expected. However, I think now more than ever there is more focus on EMS internal resiliency, transparency and good communications options. Over the years, we’ve made a lot of investments in real-time systems, plus set up an IT infrastructure that facilitates remote work and remote team collaboration. In past years, that combination was attractive to customers. This year, it was indispensable because it enabled our customer support teams to work from home with customers and helped us understand our options in terms of inbound freight, production status and shipments.
Barbella: How has IoT and IoMT influenced the kinds of products and technologies EMS providers have helped develop in recent years?
Fairhead: Medical products continue to become more interconnected and the IoT/IoMT market is cost driven. It is critical to evaluate the entire product realization process for opportunities to reduce unnecessary cost. Our design engineering team’s communication technology expertise across multiple industries is a plus in supporting that convergence and ensuring functionality and cost goals stay aligned.
Barbella: Please discuss the biggest challenges EMS providers face regarding technology in the next 5 years. How is your company addressing these challenges?
Fairhead: We support a variety of industries, including medical. Due to the mission critical nature of many medical products, medical device manufacturers typically don’t embrace leading edge technology until it has proven reliable in other fields. Technologically, smaller footprints drive design and manufacturing complexity. However, we have been making investments in equipment and processes to support this trend for several years so we don’t see it as a significant challenge.
Barbella: How has the OEM-EMS provider relationship changed in the wake of COVID-19?
Fairhead: As I mentioned, it is much more collaborative. This year has been a sequence of force majeure type scenarios on both sides of the equation. Customers have had demand on some products drop to zero, while demand spiked significantly on others. Maintaining strong communications channels has been critical because customers aren’t travelling to our facilities and our team isn’t travelling to them. We’ve talked through schedule changes and supply chain disruptions and worked through them, all virtually. Everyone—customers, suppliers and our team had to work together to achieve viable outcomes and that has built a higher level of trust and transparency.
Barbella: What lessons (if any) have EMS providers learned from the pandemic that they can carry forward once the virus is brought under control?
Fairhead: We’ve always flexed support resources such as test engineering or design engineering virtually among our facilities. For example, a test engineer in Chicago or Suzhou may be supporting projects in Vietnam. Our supply chain team is also networked globally. Our program management and sales teams are set up to work remotely since they normally travel. I think the pandemic validated that the system and IT infrastructure investments we’d made give us an added layer of resiliency. So, we’ll continue build that into our strategy.
Barbella: How were EMS providers’ supply chain management skills tested by the pandemic?
Fairhead: There was a four- to eight-week gap in component supply due to China’s shutdowns, but inventory stockpiled in anticipation of the Lunar New Year shutdown enabled most component manufacturers to catch up. The bigger issue was trans-Pacific shipments as the combination of shutdowns and reduced demand/travel impacted shipping and air freight. We chose to ship freight LTL in both directions as soon as parts became available rather than consolidating in large shipping containers. While this increased logistics costs temporarily, it eliminated the bottlenecks taking place at most freight forwarders who were consolidating shipments into large container shipments.