The medical manufacturing industry in South Africa is growing, owing to increasing lifestyle challenges, such as obesity and sedentary habits, medical implant manufacturer Jan Hugo Precision Engineering tells Engineering News.
The average age of the world’s population is increasing, which has, in turn increased the demand for medical and dental implants.
“If you look at most people’s lifestyles, the unhealthy choices they make put strain on their bodies and they eventually require a variety of medical implants, from artificial heart valves to artificial spinal discs,” states Jan Hugo Precision Engineering CEO Jan Hugo.
He notes that one of the challenges facing the dental implant industry is that many medi- cal aid schemes classify dental implants as a cosmetic procedure and, hence, do not cover dental implant procedures.
“Medical aids are under strain financially, so unless a person has a top-of-the-range scheme, he or she would have to pay cash for dental implants. As a result, this industry will feel the pressure first if there is an economic downturn because dental implants are regarded as cosmetic and not as a necessity, which they can be,” Hugo says.
He adds that orthopaedic implants, however, are generally covered by medical aid schemes and often those types of procedures cannot be postponed.
Hugo states that another challenge the local industry faces is cheap imports.
“There is a limited medical implant market in South Africa and international companies manufacture high volumes of implants. They often export their excess stock to South Africa.”
Hugo feels it is important that government give preference to local products, as this would assist local manufacturers.
However, he highlights that, in South Africa, products used in the medical field are open to being designed, manufactured or marketed by unscrupulous individuals or organisations, as the country’s regulations are not strict enough regarding medical devices.
Hugo says that one of the latest trends in the medical implant industry is to surface- enhance implants to improve bone integration.
“There is a definite trend to use materials that integrate more easily into the body. Currently, there are still materials that are rejected by the body. For example, instead of getting an artificial disk during back surgery, a person would have to get a spinal fusion or try an alternative, complicated surgery,” he states.
Another trend is minimal invasive procedures.
“Previously, surgery would be a big procedure. Lately, surgeons want to make minimal incisions in the body,” he says, which results in instruments and products having to be designed to work through small incisions.
However, the skills needed to maintain implant-manufacturing machines are of a high level, and that there is a major shortage of available skills worldwide, states Hugo.
“There are not enough artisans, technicians and engineers in the medical implant manufacturing industry. These professions require maths and science and many people steer away from those subjects because they are not effectively promoted at school level,” he says.
To counter the skills shortage, Jan Hugo Precision Engineering offers in-house training and regularly sends employees to computer- aided design (Cad) schools.
“Cad equipment and other available electronic media have positively impacted on the effi- ciency of the medical implant industry. For example, special implants can be designed and manufactured to meet a person’s specific needs,” he says.
The company also sends employees to trade shows and seminars where the latest machines and technologies are showcased.
Meanwhile, Hugo states that the company is broadening its client base and, as a result, is expanding into other sectors to ensure that it is not dependent on a single industry to generate work opportunities.
“To reduce our reliance on one industry, we are focusing on the defence industry, remaining within the high-precision manufacturing environment,” he states, adding that this can be difficult as the defence industry is politically charged.
“A lot of companies supplying the defence industry have closed in the past ten years, owing to the limited amount of work that was available. New requirements now prevail, but reliable suppliers don’t exist,” he concludes.