Medical company takes up slack left by auto industry

November 21, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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ZEELAND — The auto industry's setbacks in Michigan have had a silver lining for Medical Accessories & Research Corp.

When employees such as Joel Zylstra and Mark Adomeit at the small Zeeland company talk casually about things like neurosurgery and laparoscopic colon resection, one might assume they are doctors or medical specialists of some type.

They aren't. They are model makers who perfected their skills working in the automotive industry. Out of about 38 people now employed at MARC, seven of them are model makers, all with previous experience in the automotive industry.

MARC was established 17 years ago by Chuck Clevenger to design and build surgical training models for American medical device manufacturers such as Medtronic, Johnson & Johnson, Zimmer and Stryker.

Executives at the privately held company won't divulge revenues, but Zylstra, the general manager, said the company has enjoyed more than a 300 percent increase in sales over the past four years.

Unlike the auto industry, the medical device industry is apparently stable despite the economic problems around the world. When asked what impact the slowdown in the economy has had on the industry, Zylstra said he has "been staying in close contact with our customers. So far it is zero."

Key medical markets served by MARC are orthopedics and laparoscopy, with emerging opportunities in building "trainers" for neurosurgery and ENT surgeries (ear, nose and throat). Laparoscopy is a developing type of surgery that is minimally invasive, involving very small incisions.

When a company such as Stryker develops an implant device — a new artificial kneecap, for example — it must carefully train surgeons around the world how to install it correctly or face the risk of being named in medical malpractice lawsuits.

Traditionally, surgical training has involved the use of patients, or cadavers or animals. Obviously, there are strict limitations on the availability of cadavers and body parts, and logistical problems with storage, plus the safe and ethical disposal of human remains. In some parts of the world where implant training must be offered, there are cultural issues impinging upon the use of cadavers.

What the MARC staff call “trainers” are lifelike plastic models of portions of human anatomy that can be used instead of cadavers. The model makers' extensive familiarity with a variety of synthetic materials and casting techniques results in highly detailed simulations of skin, muscle, vasculature, nerves and bones. The bones and human tissue not only look like the real thing, they actually "bleed" when physicians in training cut and drill into them, as would happen in real implant surgery.

The similarity to human fluids and flesh is critical because the physician must experience how drills, saws and other surgical instruments will react in real surgery, according to Zylstra. The practice destroys the "trainer" but the use of MARC models is still far more cost effective than cadavers, according to Clevenger, who estimates that one of his customers that markets a cervical disk implant saved millions of dollars by using MARC models for training physicians.

MARC has developed one trainer that incorporates four different types of pathologies, which would be extremely difficult to find in one human body.

"We can manufacture this on demand" for the medical device manufacturer, said Adomeit, as opposed to that company having to wait for just the right cadaver to become available for training purposes.

"There's nothing in the body that we can't offer" as a model, said Clevenger. About four years ago, a potential customer requested a functioning model of a human heart — one that actually beat like the real thing.

"We had to turn it down," said Clevenger — but added he thinks the company now has the technology and ability to do it.

Clevenger and the model makers at MARC also predict the day is not far off when models can be built to provide precise electronic feedback to serious mistakes made in surgical training, to mimic what a real neurosystem would do in surgery.

"I would say we have very little competition," said Clevenger.

Adomeit has been a model maker for 25 years. He was a lead model maker for GM in Warren and has also worked for a number of automotive suppliers. He has made models for appliance manufacturer Whirlpool. Two years ago when he joined MARC, he had been facing the prospect of moving to Georgia to continue working as a model maker.

"There are limited (employment) markets for model makers," said Zylstra.

"It's a big leap going from floor consoles (in a car) to spine models," said Adomeit. But he noted that a lot of the professional skills required in three-dimensional model-making are the same, regardless of what is being modeled.

His work at MARC is not for the squeamish, however. They learn about a particular body part directly from physicians and clinicians at work in the operating room or morgue.

"You roll up your sleeves, put on your rubber gloves and go in with the doctor," he said.

"This one here has been referred to as the Holy Grail of spinal trainers on more than a few occasions," said Adomeit with pride, indicating a "posterior adult lumbar torso" that looks, feels and reacts to incisions by medical instruments like human flesh and bone. Even the spinal column just below the surface of the skin feels like the real thing.

The immediate availability of training models also expedites the product development cycle of medical devices because there can be a significant wait for cadavers for training physicians when a product is first introduced.

Clevenger said that opportunities for workers in the automotive industry go beyond just model makers. He hired Steve Homich, MARC director of operations, because of his years of expertise in lean manufacturing at companies that produced molded foam products in high and low volumes. Homich's reorganization of the shop floor has increased productivity that has avoided increased labor costs, according to Clevenger.

"We are going to continue to expand in new product lines," said Clevenger.

The only thing holding MARC back now is a lack of capital, which could speed up the expansion, he said. Of course, capital is scarce these days due to the widespread difficulties afflicting the U.S. financial industry. However, Clevenger is quick to note that he is not interested in selling any stock in MARC to raise capital.

Clevenger said he started the company "with no cash."

"Our success has been in spite of the lack of money," he said. "We've done it on our own."

He estimates MARC could grow five times its current size in the next three years "with proper financial foundation."

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