Medical Parts Manufacturer Ramps Up In Walker Plant

September 17, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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WALKER — People who used to work in the MetoKote Corp. plant in the North Wilson Commerce Park wouldn't recognize the interior of it today. A factory that was once typical of Michigan's industrial economy is now part of the growing medical products industry in West Michigan.

Now it's The Tech Group Grand Rapids, and instead of a traditional industrial coating plant with a grimy interior, it is spotlessly clean. In fact, there are some areas inside the plant that are "literally sterile," according to plant manager Mark Palmer.

It has to be clean, because its primary products are disposable filters connected to intravenous (IV) drips used in hospitals and clinics. The Walker plant produces about 98 percent of the IV filters used in Japan, and about 30 percent of those used in Europe, according to Palmer.

Many of the workers in the Tech Group Grand Rapids plant wear sterile white gowns covering their clothes, plus sterile headwear and shoe coverings, and employees with beards or mustaches must also wear masks. These employees work inside two large, sealed Class 100,000 "clean rooms."  Class 100,000 is a biotech industry standard: a room containing air that has no more than 100,000 suspended particles per cubic foot, the particles equal to or larger than 0.5 microns. A human hair is about 100 microns thick and the smallest dot visible to the average human eye is about 50 microns.

Tech Group Grand Rapids also has a smaller clean room that is even cleaner yet: Class 10,000.

"We take a lot of pride in our cleanliness," said Palmer.

The large clean rooms in the plant are where most of the production, testing and packaging takes place. The plant is highly automated, with robotic machinery doing much of the work to produce disposable plastic medical device parts used throughout North America, Europe and Japan.

Last week the parent company, West Pharmaceutical Services Inc. of Lionville, Pa., sent its CEO and Tech Group executives to join representatives of the city of Walker to celebrate the opening of the renovated 111,000-square-foot plant, a $17.3 million investment that will have created about 100 new jobs.

Palmer said the plant employs about 190 now but will have an estimated 225 employees by the end of the year.

Tech Group, which has corporate offices in Arizona, has several plants in that state plus three in Pennsylvania and one in Frankfort, Ind. There are others in Puerto Rico, Mexico and Ireland.

About six years ago, according to Palmer, Tech Group bought the Medtronic production plant on Grandville Avenue in Grand Rapids. Eventually, Tech Group production demands outgrew that plant, so the company acquired the former MetoKote Corp. plant in Walker and began renovating it a year ago. Production began in March while the company continued to move in additional equipment. The move is nearly complete now.

The Walker plant is one of Tech Group's highest volume producers. When the plant is fully operational, it will have 15 assembly lines producing about 75 types of medical solution filters.

The manufacturer also has 40 injection molding machines producing components for use in medical devices made by Medtronics and other companies, said Palmer. The firm’s injection mold presses are rated from 35 to 400 tons.

While he could not divulge sales figures, Palmer said Tech Group sales have experienced "continuous growth," and it is doing "extremely well" in the health care market.

Palmer is a native of Flint. His father and brothers worked for General Motors and he worked on the assembly line, too, for three years after high school. Then he decided to move to Arizona, where he landed a job with Tech Group 25 years ago.

"My dad thought I was nuts, walking away from GM," he said. Just three or four years later, that GM plant closed, putting 10,000 people out of work. The plant is completely gone today.

Unlike the automotive industry, Palmer sees the medical products industry as almost "recession-proof," a place where young employees can make a commitment to a career.

"To me, this is a great example of what Michigan should be focusing on," he said.

For remaining in Michigan and locating in Walker, The Tech Group was granted partial abatements on some state and local taxes for up to 12 years, which could possibly save the company up to $500,000 over that period, according to a Walker tax official.     

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