Aug 18, 2023

Freudenberg Medical implements VR training for catheter production

BEVERLY, Mass.—Every now and again, a certain technology comes along that solves a number of different industry challenges, from labor scarcity to inefficient manufacturing, production downtime to non-standard training.

Freudenberg Medical—one of 11 business segments within Weinheim, Germany-based Freudenberg-NOK—is not missing a chance to implement the benefits of virtual reality, a panacea of sorts for medical component manufacturers.

"Virtual reality improves production efficiency, reduces raw material use and cuts training costs," Lars Gerding, vice president of technology at Freudenberg Medical, told Rubber News June 6. "The benefits are overwhelming. Time reduction in training is extremely important, especially with work force and labor issues and the fluctuation we have seen there.

"We can hire a lot of people in a short period of time ... VR standardizes the training and ensures it can be done offline."

Conventional training meant production lines would be disrupted to provide new operators with adequate training.

"Introducing new colleagues to the shop floor is challenging," said Seamus Maguire, vice president of lean systems at Freudenberg Medical. "We have many highly specialized tasks that need to be accomplished under magnification. Training previously required a dedicated trainer for each trainee, which was costly."

Freudenberg Medical offers thermoplastic injection molding and silicone injection molding; silicone and thermoplastic extrusion; complex catheters for diagnosis and therapy; manufacturing, packaging, sterilization and technical services; and coatings for medical devices, including drug coatings for combination products.

But it was catheter production, and its associated training, that caught Gerding's eye as a space to test VR technology. First implemented at production lines in Ireland, Freudenberg Medical now is putting employees through their VR training paces in Jeffersonville, Ind.

"We started with catheters, that seemed to make the most sense," Gerding said. "We had been monitoring VR tech quite a bit, and we knew there were training applications around, especially in this industry, that would work."

Like many others, Gerding's first experiences with VR centered around machine or system maintenance instruction—a technology that is used to fix a machine or offer some type of preventative maintenance or on-site/off-site service.

"We wanted to use it in the catheter assembly space," Gerding said. "This is where we saw the biggest need."

Training along any production line—and especially those that require microscopic precision—can be lengthy, labor-intensive and costly.

Production education consumes a lot of very real materials, and the learning often must be accomplished online, causing disruptions to the production of workable, sellable product.

"What we did is take it all out of the clean room and put it into a virtual environment," Gerding said. "So there is no energy spent to run the clean room and 'keep the lights on' for training purposes."

Another benefit to VR training for catheter production—which requires micromolding, sterilization and the use of magnification—is that employees "can learn at their own pace."

"They do not feel monitored, or that someone is constantly looking over their shoulder," he said. "The average training is about three days before they take a test and are certified to go online. Using muscle memory developed from repetition, a standard is established to where everyone has the same training."

In addition, the software package can include training in multiple translations for shops with several languages spoken on the production floors.

"And this helps greatly in hiring and training," Gerding said.

In a normal training day, employees come in, put on their head sets and sign-in with a user name.

There, they get their instructions for the day and what portions of the production process will be covered.

"They learn what paths they need to take, what materials they will need for manufacturing ... all the way to what procedures need to be learned for cleaning steps, or a heat shrink step, or another under-the-microscope step that is made possible by VR," Gerding said.

The tricky part, he said, was the microscope training, as it represented an interdisciplinary step that required some work to alter the VR training by Freudenberg Medical's quality control experts.

"We had to work to bring it all together," Gerding said. "How do you simulate someone looking through a microscope? There were some new aspects to this as compared to typical VR training."

With the streamlined VR training in catheter production, Freudenberg plans to cater it to other products.

"We started with one catheter work station, then rolled it out to six work stations," Gerding said. "It was a great success, and employees liked the format a lot.

"We will implement it further where tasks are more complicated—and we may even get back to the maintenance angle, where perhaps something needs tightened with a proper torque—classical maintenance activities that might require a high-degree of complexity.

"I am confident VR will become a new standard for training."

VR training has few hurdles from a regulatory perspective, in that it is considered superior to conventional training, Gerding said.

"One important question in audits is 'how are your employees trained?' and 'how do you check that they understand the training?'

"Here you have a training record in VR showing exactly how the employee performed the task," he said. "The training is standardized, recorded and does not depend on the trainer's daily performance. There is no risk in transitioning this to the manufacturing floor, because supervision and QA checks are still the same as they are when validated 'conventionally.' "

In addition, VR assists Freudenberg in its sustainability efforts by saving on scrap elastomers.

"When you are not using actual material for training purposes, there is waste reduction, energy savings and sustainability achieved through making the process more repeatable," Gerding said. "When manufacturing does begin in reality, fewer mistakes are made there as well."

While supply chain issues remain, VR helps ensure that end-use products are going out the door.

"What we cannot mitigate directly is a shortage of material and components," Gerding said. "Here, at least if we do not get all the material we want delivered, we are not wasting it on training. The turnover is sellable, workable product."

Perhaps most importantly, VR is helping Freudenberg hit the all-important "takt" time, a tool for setting the pace and rhythm of the manufacturing process and aligning it with customer demand.

Now, after three days of VR training (in most cases), operators are able to hit takt time, which increases manufacturing efficiency "by a multiple," Gerding said.

"This is in line with Freudenberg's commitment to sustainability," he said. "Against the backdrop of global supply chain disruptions in recent years, implementing the VR training has been particularly beneficial.

"We are 100-percent dedicated to serving our medical customers, and this demonstrates that dedication. The longer vision, the longer-term commitment, is the stance we tend to adopt."

Freudenberg Medical brought in about $358.5 million of the $12.8 billion in Freudenberg-NOK sales in 2022.

Besides catheters, the division makes hypotubes, special needles, medical balloons and coatings for minimally invasive procedures, as well as precision molded parts and medical tubing.

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