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A diversified revenue stream is proving invaluable in the move toward medical at Singapore’s Univac Precision Engineering.Univac started off as a high-precision toolmaker in 1980 with fewer than 100 employees before entering a sustained growth phase in the 1990s. This period saw the processor add injection molding capability for the first time in Singapore, and then a processing operation in Malaysia in 1998 through an acquisition of a local molder. Currently, the company has more than 1500 employees under its wing.

March 17, 2010

9 Min Read
Plant Tour: Univac plots healthy entry into medtech sector

A diversified revenue stream is proving invaluable in the move toward medical at Singapore’s Univac Precision Engineering.

Univac started off as a high-precision toolmaker in 1980 with fewer than 100 employees before entering a sustained growth phase in the 1990s. This period saw the processor add injection molding capability for the first time in Singapore, and then a processing operation in Malaysia in 1998 through an acquisition of a local molder. Currently, the company has more than 1500 employees under its wing.

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TechPlace is a fitting location for Univac’s global HQ.


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Univac’s Fritz Maier: “Our diverse product portfolio is helping us get a leg up in medical.”


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Univac prides itself on its moldmaking prowess. This multicavity closure mold features an integrated hot runner system.


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A controlled room is used for inkjet cartridge molding.

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Univac also carries out cleanroom assembly.

Entering the 21st century, Univac added even more capabilities, including product design, design and engineering for high-volume manufacturing, and automated assembly. The first decade saw Univac establish molding operations in two locations in China—Shanghai and Suzhou—to serve multinational corporations with manufacturing assets on the mainland. Furthermore, Univac also opened full-time marketing offices in the United States and Europe. Step in Fritz Maier, marketing manager for European operations at Univac, who hosted IMM on a recent tour of the company’s Singapore headquarters.

“A lot of the design work for the markets we serve is still carried out in Europe and the U.S.,” explains Maier. “And because we typically enter new projects at a very early stage, in effect co-designing many parts to ensure manufacturability and functionality, we need full-fledged engineers on hand locally to interact with our clients. Considering the remoteness of our tooling and molding operations from the U.S. and Europe, this gives our clients a great deal of comfort.” Maier says that once customers feel comfortable with Univac as a partner, they’re more than willing to make the trip to Asia to get projects fully up and running.

Univac’s Singapore operation represents the nucleus of its toolmaking, being home to 62 items of toolmaking machinery, including machining centers and EDM equipment, as well as 150 toolmakers. Univac’s air-conditioned tooling operation houses one high-precision machine in particular—a Hauser S45 fully automatic 3D production grinding cell—that enjoys pride of place in its own room to ensure maximum accuracy.

The facility turns out 300-500 tools annually for Univac operations in Malaysia and China as well as outside customers. “Sixty percent of tools are for other customers, including Covidien, Schick, J&J, and Unilever,” says Maier. The overseas Univac plants have their own tool maintenance facilities, but full tool overhauls and refurbishment are generally handled by Singapore.

Molding operations in Singapore, where Univac runs 15 injection machines, are essentially limited to tool testing and new product introduction. The processor is, however, installing a Class 100,000 cleanroom there to serve customers in the medical and pharmaceutical sector, which represents a fast-growing business for the company. This will be used for tool testing and new product introduction in the same environment that would be used for production in Malaysia or China.

The Singapore HQ facility has product and tool design, tooling, production, and admin functions spread over three floors. “We use 10 different factory units spread over these three floors. It’s not what you’d call a traditional factory layout,” notes Maier.

Progress from printers
Univac’s origins lie in the computer and peripherals markets, particularly connectors and printers. “This segment, which is very labor intensive, once accounted for 60% of our business, but now it’s at about 10%,” says Maier. “This business is fast going the way of vertical contract manufacturers and from a molder’s perspective, it will eventually move to very low-cost geographies. We do expect to retain our business for tooling to turnkey manufacturing of print-head and inkjet cartridges because of its high auto-assembly nature.”

A controlled area at the company’s Tampoi plant in the state of Johor, Malaysia measures 21,528 ft2 and is used for molding print-head and inkjet cartridges. Assembly of the print-head is carried out in a mix of Class 10,000 and 100,000 cleanrooms. The Tampoi plant also houses a large Class 100,000 cleanroom for medical molding, measuring 35,521 ft2 and housing 18 machines and some subassembly operations.

In a similar application, Univac also molds print-heads in Suzhou. Here, a room-in-room solution from KraussMaffei Technologies is employed, whereby the clamping ends of the four injection machines protrude into a 4090-ft2 sealed cleanroom, while the injection ends are housed in a 1937-ft2 controlled area. Material is fed pneumatically from outside the controlled area. “Our production operations are delineated on a geographical market basis,” says Maier. “For products sold in China or where our customers require us to be there, we do the work in China. Malaysia serves the rest of the world.”

Consumables and personal care is also considered a core business at Univac nowadays, and growth is being driven by Univac’s experience in product design and tooling. Products in this segment include tamperproof caps and closures, where the company often plays a major role in design, as well as cosmetic packaging, shavers, lighters, and even pens. One example of joint development in this segment was a water purifier for the Indian market. “We designed the disposable tablet cartridge for the unit on behalf of the client, and built the tool for it,” says Maier, although molding was transferred to India.

Overall, Maier believes that the border between product design and tooling design is very gray nowadays. “The respective teams are totally interlinked, and even when product design is not complete, we have to bring in design for manufacturing.”

For consumer and personal care, and medical and pharmaceutical, the big issue is how to produce at the lowest possible unit cost, according to Maier. “That doesn’t necessarily mean minimizing your capital investment in machines, tooling, and automation, but you can still be smart about how you get the best equipment package together.”

Case in point: Automation equipment for medical consumables handling is provided locally by the former Singapore government entity PSB Corp., which was originally the Singapore Productivity & Standards Board. “Being a former government entity, no expense was spared in developing top-notch automation equipment,” says Maier. “We view it as a cost-effective alternative to high-end European machinery.”

Strength through diversity
A diversified revenue stream can prove handy when one considers a typical medical device project. “The main challenge with serving medical is the long gestation time from design through to mass production,” says Maier. “If you are not an established player in medical already, you need another foot to stand on. For us right now, that’s inkjet cartridges in particular, but also consumables and personal care.”

According to Univac’s product design manager (R&D) Christopher Rodrigues, “We get the product design at a very early stage when it is far from final, but that’s when we have to start designing and fabricating a single-cavity prototype tool. Then follows a process of numerous iterations that could last three to six months as the customer gets back to us with design changes.” Rodrigues says that welding is normally sufficient to modify the tool for the first five or so iterations, beyond which new inserts have to be fabricated.

The finalized single-cavity prototype tool is often used as a pilot tool, serving as a bridge to a multicavity production tool. “The production tool itself could take three months to build and five months to validate,” says Rodrigues. “In all, tooling alone can be an 18-month cycle, sometimes two years from first prototype mold to multicavity production tooling.” Moreover, it might be as long as two to three years from production startup to when extra tools are brought in to boost production volume.

Univac divides its device business into medical and pharmaceutical. “If we have a customer who is a medical device manufacturer, then we class the product as medical, whereas if the client is a pharmaceutical company that we might be manufacturing a drug dispensing system for, then the product is a pharmaceutical product.” These two customer types have significant implications regarding how Univac goes about its business. “With a pharmaceutical customer, we are in fact the developer and manufacturer of the device, which might, for example, be an inhaler or a delivery system for an insulin pump. If we are molding on behalf of a medical device maker, we’re essentially relegated to Tier One.”

Maier says pharmaceutical suppliers make most of their money out of the drug rather than the device for dispensing it, and in this sense, Univac is eager to take on more responsibility through a combination of product design, tooling, and manufacturing. “We are asking our customers whether they have existing production that they can shift to us in order to save manufacturing costs, or new developments where they want to involve us in order to reduce crucial time to market,” says Maier. Products on the radar include drug delivery devices such as inhalers, diabetes cartridges, insulin pens, and laboratory equipment such as petri dishes, pipettes, blood test strips, and 96-well arrays.

Another attribute of the medical market helping Univac’s business is the perceived need to develop local products for local markets. This might entail a different-sized device due to differences in hand sizes, or a slightly different design on account of skin characteristics. Maier believes that expanding device production in Asia will have more to do with serving local markets in a timely manner. “Cost issues are not the main driver for decisions in the medical segment,” he notes. And with a fast-developing medical market the size of Asia’s, Univac’s focus on this segment looks to be reaping healthy returns.

Vital Stats
Univac Precision, Singapore
Facility size: 535,532 ft2 at four sites—Singapore, Malaysia, Shanghai, Suzhou
Annual sales: $94 million (2009)
Markets served: Computer and peripherals, automotive, industrial, consumables, personal, medical, pharmaceutical
Customers: Include Hewlett-Packard, Valeo, Schneider, Schick, Lego, Baxter, BD (Becton Dickinson), Medtronic
Parts produced: 2.4 billion/year
Materials processed: POM, PC, PA, ABS, PS, HDPE, LDPE, PP, PC/ABS, PC/PET, TPE
Resin consumption: 48,000 tonnes/year
No. of employees: 1500
Shifts: Singapore—two 12-hr shifts, six days/week; Malaysia—two 12-hr shifts, six days/week; China—three 12-hr shifts, four days/week (at any one time, there are two shifts working simultaneously in China; the employees work four days and rest two days—Sunday is considered a rest day)
Molding machines: 217, 50-550 tons, including KraussMaffei, Engel, Nissei, Sumitomo
Other services: Automation engineering, product engineering, tool testing and new product introduction, manual and automated assembly, packaging and fulfillment
Internal moldmaking: Yes
Quality: ISO 13485, ISO 16949, ISO 14001, ISO 9001

Contact information
Fritz Maier | [email protected]
www.univacprecision.com

Stephen Moore

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