It’s all around us today: news of research, developments, and breakthroughs that could dramatically alter the medical landscape and the delivery of healthcare. It appears that targeted genetic therapies are on their way to being customized to individual patients, promising big changes in the way certain cancers and other diseases are treated. Someday, CRISPR gene editing technology could be used to correct “typos” in a person’s genetic code—permanently modifying genetic mutations to prevent their expression. We may even have health sensors that are built into self-driving cars. Now how’s that for technology convergence?

The point is that technology is advancing rapidly in the medical industry, opening new doors for improved diagnostics, personal health monitoring, and more effective treatments and surgeries. In the surgical arena alone, leading medical device makers are trying to come up with better, more innovative products that enable surgeons to do procedures for patients that weren’t previously possible. Because that’s a very difficult thing to accomplish, medical manufacturers need all the help they can get from the best suppliers, who, in turn, need to find innovative ways to  make really challenging parts while meeting stringent quality requirements.

In this ultra-competitive environment, medical OEMs aren’t softening their demands on suppliers. Sometimes, a project seems impossible to accomplish, at least through traditional methods. It’s in situations like these that some industry-leading suppliers have gone outside the box to combine existing technologies and, in some cases, develop new methods and processes to get the job done. They’ve created innovative technologies and techniques to make parts that can’t be made by other companies, and to the same degree of quality, because they don’t have the engineering talent and technology necessary to do it.  And that’s one sure way to earn the respect of customers who pride themselves on being innovators in their fields.

Creating an innovative solution could mean establishing a highly repeatable automated process that builds quality into the manufacturing of a tiny DNA holder with extremely thin walls. It could entail developing  new manufacturing processes that overcome the challenges preventing established processes from making a new type of multi-functional, high performance medical extrusion. And it could also mean being resourceful enough to cut one’s way through the myriad obstacles—many of them financial in nature—that prevent high-quality medical products from being available to all who need them.

If you’re a medical device manufacturer looking to break new ground via a future product, you may already have a good idea who would be your best suppliers. If you don’t, it always pays to do solid research up front.

What to Look For

What are some of the characteristics that indicate whether a supplier is up to meeting your requirements for innovative new products? Each situation is different, of course, but beyond the obvious certifications necessary for your type of work, there are some indicators that can be useful.

Does the supplier have a solid engineering team that’s immersed in the latest developments around materials, design, tooling, manufacturing processes, electronics, and software? Multi-disciplinary engineering teams can provide a big lift with their ability to see the relationships between different technologies, and how certain aspects of some processes and techniques can be applied to others to solve problems. Some suppliers make technology investment a high priority and have their own, dedicated R&D departments or divisions that aren’t afraid to experiment and push the boundaries of what is currently known.

It’s also a good sign if a medical supplier has motivated engineers who are just as committed to working with you as they are excited about the technologies they’re using or developing. One CEO of a respected medical supplier told D2P that he was proud of the partnerships that his company has with its customers. “We are absolutely open in every sense of the word to having our customers in our place, and to us being in theirs, to see how what we produce is going to be absolutely the best piece the customer can have,” he said. “It’s built on mutual respect. The customer has got to know we’re going to open ourselves up. Once that relationship is established, they’re part of us. We’re part of them.”

Establishing strong customer-supplier relationships is crucial to innovation because it allows the supplier to really understand what the customer is going through on a daily basis: What are the most vexing challenges, and what needs to be done to overcome them? These are questions that are best answered by suppliers who not only talk regularly with their customers, but actually “go out and live with their customers,” as John Hagel, co-chairman, Deloitte Center for the Edge, recently told D2P.

“It’s having the skillset and expertise to actually go out and live with the customer and really see what they’re trying to do on a daily basis, and where and how you could provide additional insight or capability through some of these new technologies,” Hagel said in an interview in May.

When a supplier combines a strong understanding of a customer’s needs with motivated engineers who bring a high skill set to the customer relationship, there’s an excellent chance that good things will happen. You, as a customer, may even get the benefits of an innovative new technology.

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