Transonic to integrate automation, create jobs

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Thanks to recent state grants, Transonic Systems, a medical technology company based in Ithaca, will soon transition its existing manufacturing plant to include automated processes, helping to create jobs and meet the growing demand for its products.

In December, New York state’s Regional Economic Development Council awarded over $13.8 million in grants to Tompkins County organizations, and Transonic’s Global Competitiveness through Automated Manufacturing project received a $220,000 Empire State Development grant and a $220,000 Excelsior Jobs Program grant.

The project will integrate collaborative automation into Transonic manufacturing to work alongside and help current employees while adding new jobs in the process.

Transonic started over 30 years ago when founder Cornelis (Cor) Drost was a senior research associate at Cornell University. He patented a technology that used non-invasive ultrasound to measure blood flow through vessels with high accuracy. Since then, the company has only grown, now producing technology like surgical probes for thoracic surgery and mechanical circulatory support products that use non-invasive methods to measure patient data like blood flow.

“We’re a Cornell University offspring, and we’ve developed a lot of new medical devices and measurement technology that have now become the gold standard,” Drost said.

That “gold-standard” technology is sold to medical facilities all over the world, and with that comes attracting more competition, Transonic Director of Manufacturing and Automation Steven Van-Fleet said.

Van-Fleet said that currently, all Transonic products are manufactured manually, which makes them difficult to mass-produce. Recent changes in the healthcare landscape, like the Affordable Care Act consolidating healthcare and hospitals becoming more concerned about hospital-acquired infections, have driven up demand for medical devices that can be mass-produced, and thus, it was clear Transonic had to make a change to keep up.

“Hospitals are now transitioning to single-use surgical devices,” Van-Fleet said. “In other words, they don’t want to deal with having to sterilize things. They want it to come in a pre-sterilized package, one-time use. … Where we might sell x probes a year reusable, we’ll sell 100x now with single-use, so that’s a good thing, but that requires automation.”

Because global partners are pushing Transonic to create a wider variety of products in bigger volumes, this has been a multi-year, multimillion dollar investment for Transonic, Van-Fleet said. Current products aren’t designed for automation, so Transonic will undergo product redesign to suit the new incoming manufacturing technology. The grant money will be spent on this product redesign, plus robotic manufacturing cells, automated calibration equipment, automated device interfacing and employee training.

The next step in this automation transition is this month, when Transonic will select an automation partner. Then comes the redesign process, which will take eight to nine months. Van-Fleet said though Transonic might be catching up with competition, he’s optimistic about the future.

“Even though we’re kind of behind the curve, and we should’ve pulled the trigger sooner, at the same time, we’re at a perfect storm of technology prices costs coming down, different types of solutions available,” Van-Fleet said. “It’s a good time to do this.”

The automation is as good for business as it is good for the employees, Van-Fleet said. Currently, Transonic employees are largely hunched over a microscope eight hours per day soldering wires and parts together in the medical devices. Automation, Van-Fleet explained, will take away that repetitive, mundane effort from those employees and give it to robots, allowing employees to perform different, higher-skilled tasks alongside the robots.

“When people think about automation, they immediately think it’s going to cost jobs. Those are the old days,” Van-Fleet said.

Drost explained that integrating automation also increases Transonic’s demand for highly skilled employees, where there is currently a wide market. Transonic will continue to provide entry-level positions but will train those individuals to perform these more sophisticated tasks.

“These are the same entry-level people that now get to do very hands-on work together with robotic manufacturing [assistance],” Drost said. “We will never become an empty machine, where a whole bunch of machines are just whirring and stirring around. … Automation is not going to replace people. It just helps us use the same people more productively and help them grow with the company and create higher-paying jobs.”

Van-Fleet added that automation helps meet increased demand, which will help strengthen and grow the company, further adding jobs.

“We anticipate because of the market demand and now our ability to deliver many more products that we’re going to strengthen our sales force and our marketing force, and all the support structure around it will have to change,” Van-Fleet said. “That’s how we’re going to add people.”

Tompkins County Area Development has had a long-standing relationship with Transonic and has seen it grown throughout the years. Chuck Schwerin, managing director of business services for TCAD, said this transition is beneficial for both Transonic and the rest of the county.

“Transonic is an important contributor to the local economy,” Schwerin said. “Its ability to export their goods beyond the county boundaries and bring in revenue that is spent in the county is precisely the type of business TCAD strives to promote. In this case, automation will permit the company to meet market demand for disposable medical components at a lower price point than was previously possible. Absent automation, the company would be hard-pressed to remain competitive.”

Van-Fleet echoed that sentiment, adding that once this automation process is complete, Transonic will likely experience never-before-seen growth.

“Whereas we’ve had this incremental, positive growth every year as a result of being a manual operation, … it’s difficult to do step changes because there’s only so much you can do with the current floor capacity of manufacturing,” Van-Fleet said. “Once we have this technology in place, I see a very significant step change in our ability to manufacture more.”

Schwerin and others at the TCAD are looking forward to that vision becoming a reality.

“This is a great testament to the prudent use of state funds to support the Finger Lakes and Southern Tier economy,” he said. “So, our hopes are high this project will come to fruition.”

Drost, who has seen his company go from small start-up to global competitor, said he’s proud of Transonic’s journey and is excited to see where this next step will take it.

“This will facilitate us to grow with the market and not see our technology be stolen away by the competition that you automatically attract when you become successful,” Drost said.

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