Medical device manufacturer making leap to larger space

The TMW production floor has doubled in size at the company's new location. Dan Watson/The Signal.

Six years ago, Technical Manufacturing West (TMW) was a startup company using hand-operated machinery to create prototypes of orthopedic medical devices, and was housed in a Santa Clarita garage. Now, with business continuing to expand, TMW Vice President of Operations Johnny Valadez and General Manager Brad Topper are preparing to move their business tolarger quarters for the third time in the company’s short history – a 14,000 square-foot facility on Avenue Tibbitts in Santa Clarita, to accommodate their expansion.

“We’ve had a phenomenal amount of growth here in just a few short years,” said Topper. “We started this when the housing market was imploding and the banks were struggling. Somehow we got people to support us and buy into our vision.”

Specializing in non-conventional machining, TMW’s operation lends itself to the manufacture of micro-surgical orthopedic devices. Moveable mechanical assemblies that they build allow access to otherwise inaccessible areas of the anatomy, or make difficult procedures go a lot faster in the operating room. Topper said their biggest customers are the Fortune 500 original equipment manufacturer (OEM) medical device customers who play in the orthopedic arena.

Back when the company was in its startup phase in the garage, they developed flexible drills and drivers, which they were able to patent.

“Imagine having a screwdriver that’s flexible,” said Topper. “We made some with nitinol cores so that you could bend them and they’d return back to their normal position.”

They brought their prototypes to orthopedic “academies,” otherwise known as trade shows, and got positive responses.

“Some of the biggest names in (the) orthopedic OEM (world) said, ‘Hey, we’re definitely interested in this’.”

They first tried to outsource the work, but that didn’t yield satisfactory results. So, they cashed in their IRAs and 401(k)s, rented a small industrial space and invested in equipment.

“The next thing we knew, we were getting contracts for them,” said Topper.

Developing demand

The company’s growth has continued, and with a recent contract to produce a machine that performs minimally invasive open-heart bypass surgery, TMW is moving to the larger facility on Avenue Tibbitts.

A Bay Area firm that developed the technology behind the new machine contracted TMW to manufacture the device – a non-disclosure agreement prevents TMW from discussing details of the contract or the name of the other firm. The device is designed to eliminate the need for traditional open heart surgery, which requires that the surgeon split the patient’s sternum. The device is designed to perform the procedure through a minimally invasive method that allows the patient to forgo the long-term pain of open-heart surgery.

Topper said that the device is difficult to build, and at first they weren’t sure they were up to the challenge. “So, we did the best we could with them, and our customers absolutely, just absolutely loved it.”

TMW entered into a long-term agreement with the OEM firm. The new contract required the addition of several new machines and optical measurement equipment to support the new tasks.

The decision to relocate came after local real estate broker Tim Crissman contacted them, knowing that they were going to be looking for new manufacturing space. Topper said the Avenue Tibbitts space is perfectly suited to the company’s needs and is the right size to accommodate its 55 hourly employees and eight-member management team.

“We probably weren’t thinking of moving just quite yet, but with the new contract and the facility being so perfect, it was a no-brainer.”

The new space will undoubtedly come in handy for developing other projects that are in the works. In addition to the bypass surgery machine, Topper said the company has a pipeline of new product ideas that are currently in R&D.

“We have an R&D lab and a specific amount of resources that are dedicated to developing those product lines,” he said.

A life in manufacturing

Producing new products is almost second nature to Topper, who has by his own account spent virtually his entire life in manufacturing. Starting off in the aircraft industry, he has spent a good deal of time around machining and machining products. But he was attracted to the medical device market because he finds it fascinating.

“Watching the History Channel, I saw that there hadn’t been a whole lot of evolution in certain procedures since the days of the ancient Egyptians,” he said. He posited that those would be great areas to focus on to bring new technology.

“Sometimes things work well and so people don’t really go after modifying them. But with today’s technology, I just saw a lot of opportunities there.”

His partner, Valadez, is the technically oriented one. “He’s also fascinated with this technology as well as the medical device marketplace,” said Topper.

As for the future, the company’s overall focus will be to take care of its customers, to grow at a controlled rate while providing on-time delivery and high-quality products.

Topper noted that the firm takes pride in being a local employer, choosing to develop their employees from local colleges, as well as hiring former military personnel who are seeking employment. He said the company is interested in pretty much anyone who shows an aptitude for mechanical or engineering work. “We have a great apprentice program,” he said.

“We like using all domestic materials, but we really like supporting domestic supply chain partners with our growth.”

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