Local Firm Supplies Many Surgeons Needles

June 17, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — The furniture city has no particular reputation for manufacturing medical products, but a fair number of firms in this community and elsewhere in West Michigan do exactly that.

One such company is Aspen Surgical Products Inc., which came into being here two years ago. The firm’s origins go back to the Richard Allen surgical products line founded in the 1960s in Kalamazoo.

Allen was one of the firms being assembled into a conglomerate with which Dan Bowen, a local man, was employed.

The conglomerate, however, overextended itself and went out of business.

At that time, Bowen purchased the rights to manufacture and market seven lines of surgical equipment that had belonged to the bankrupt corporation.

He established the firm at its present address at 7425 Clyde Park Ave.

Aspen also has a rather remote manufacturing plant — a surgical needle manufacturer in Reddich, England.

“I guess you could say that Reddich is to surgical instruments like Sheffield is to swords — and what Grand Rapids was to the furniture industry,” Bowen told the Business Journal.

“It’s very much a traditional, handicraft-type operation,” he said. “And some of the employees are the third generation in their family that’s worked there.”

He explained that the Aspen plant in Reddich hand-grinds its needles. Moreover for those needles that must be semicircular, the Reddich workers put the curves in them by hand.

“We handle 270 suture needles of all shapes and sizes,” he said.

Some of the needles, such as those used in arterial surgery or plastic surgery are extremely fine; others look more like something a sailor might use to sew canvas.

“These aren’t the sort of pre-threaded needles you see in emergency rooms,” he said. Those, he said, come in packets of thousands from Johnson and Johnson.

“Some of ours are specialty needles that are often used in orthopedic surgery.”

He explained that Aspen handles about 70 percent of the specialty needles sold in the country, but stressed that the percentage makes it sound as if it were a huge business.

“Actually, our needles are very much a niche product.”

Aspen is, however, one of the country’s major suppliers of Dr. Fog, a sterile compound that is applied to the lenses of cameras and scopes used internally in patients during laparoscopic surgery.

Without Dr. Fog, Bowen explained, the lenses of scopes and cameras in a warm, high-humidity atmosphere such as that found inside the human abdomen — fog over and the surgeon effectively is blinded when he needs to see most clearly.

Among other products Aspen assembles and packages are skin markers that surgeons use to map out the skin-level landmarks before beginning the first steps in their procedures.

Bowen told the Business Journal, incidentally, that Aspen’s name has no connectionat all with the Colorado ski resort of the same name.

“Aspen’s nice, but that’s not why we picked it,” he chuckled. “It’s a long story — too long. But basically what happened was that we went through incorporation names until practically nothing else was left.”

Aspen employs 26 people here and another 26 at the Reddich plant in England.

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