Featured Image Courtesy of MedTorque
MedTorque is one of the largest and most well-respected manufacturers of orthopedic implants and instrumentation in the United States. MedTorque designs, engineers and manufactures their own line of orthopedic instruments as well as their customers’ highly complex products in the medical industry. By working closely with their customers, the MedTorque team is able to manufacture high-quality, precision parts that medical professionals and their patients demand.
Gus Gutierrez is a 20+ year veteran of the manufacturing industry, and currently works as Operations Manager at MedTorque. Gus has held many positions in the industry, ranging from CNC Programmer to Applications Engineer, Swiss lathe machinist, and Manufacturing Engineer. Gus was able to take some time from his busy schedule to talk with us about topics like the unique inspection processes required by the medical implant industry, his challenge moving dozens of machines from the old shop to the new MedTorque location, the importance of shop culture and finding the right fit during the hiring process, and more.
Can you tell us a little more about your backstory and how you got started in manufacturing?
My career in manufacturing started at the age of 15 when I got my first work permit. I had applied to Sears, but my dad worked at a shop where they made machines for Frito Lay, and he told me I was going to be working for him instead of selling shoes at Sears.
The first time I saw a slab of rusted steel get decked with a fly cutter and finished with a beautiful shine, I was hooked. I started in the shop by cleaning the floors and got on a Bridgeport a few months later squaring off blocks. At that time, I had decided to enroll in a tool and die course to become an apprentice. We had Haas machines at the school, and so I decided that CNC was exciting and that is the world I wanted to work in.
In 1999, I got my first Swiss lathe job, and I did that for almost a year. I requested third shift to take on more hands-on projects and learn CAD/CAM. I also wanted to pursue electrical engineering, so I worked nights at the shop and went to DeVry University during the day to get my electrical engineering degree.
After 4-5 years in the business, I got my first opportunity as a CNC Programmer. I worked my way up to lead programmer and loved the interactions with customers and tooling vendors. Eventually, I transitioned into an engineering role – first at an automotive shop and then as an Application Engineer (AE) with Star CNC, a major manufacturer of Swiss lathe machines. I learned a ton as an AE, as I was able to get my hands on every new tool and technique as it was released.
Eventually, the travel time involved with being an Application Engineer caught up to me and I wanted to spend more time with my family. I took a job in Wisconsin as a Manufacturing Engineer with a medical device company and did that for several years. I was working on programming Swiss machines, 5 axis mills, conventional lathes, and did fixturing for the laser department.
After that job, I landed at MedTorque, where I also started as a Manufacturing Engineer. They quickly recognized my talents for operations management when we made a move from Chicago to our new location in Elmhurst, IL. I was able to help transport 31 major pieces of equipment between the two plants without losing any interruption to our customers over the course of 7 months. We were moving machines on Fridays, installing them on the weekend, and had them back up and running Monday morning. After that major transition, I was promoted to Operations Manager, and I have now been doing that for a year and a half.
Can you give us some company history on MedTorque?
MedTorque started in 1958 under the company name Inland Midwest. In the early days, Inland Midwest worked as a contract manufacturing facility, making just about anything they could get their hands on. Over the years, we moved into different industries like medical, and got involved in instrumentation.
In 2014, Inland Midwest acquired Medtorque in Kenosha, WI. We had been doing business with them for a while as we purchased their ratchets and handles for our orthopedic and spinal instruments. By acquiring MedTorque, we were now able to keep all of that work in-house.
We also made the decision to transition entirely to the medical industry, and we ended up selling off the industrial division of the company and taking on the well-established MedTorque name to cement ourselves as a leader in medical manufacturing.
What industries does MedTorque specialize in?
MedTorque specializes in the manufacturing of orthopedic and spinal implants and instruments. Our location in Kenosha handles all of our proprietary stuff, like the unique ratchets and instruments. In Elmhurst we are still a contract manufacturing plant, but we are focused on working with leaders in the spinal surgery industry.
What do you think sets MedTorque apart from the other medical manufacturing companies out there?
Our experienced team and the quality and consistency of our work is what sets us apart from the competition. We currently have many 25-30 year machining veterans in the shop, and we can handle some of the most complex assemblies on the market. I visited many medical facilities during my time with Star CNC, and I am still in awe at the capabilities we have here at MedTorque. Some of our assemblies can include 15 or more components, and they always fit together to create a great part. Our customer scorecard is consistently over 95% positive when it comes to our quality of work.
What are some of the changes you have made to the shop floor since taking over as Operations Manager?
Going back a few years, the shop had many different types of lathe machines. They were mostly Swiss machines from brands like Star, Tsugami, and Citizen. One of the first things I did was pitch the need to narrow down the brands we rely on, as they all use different controls. By sticking with the same controller, we will have an easier time training new employees. We also do a lot of promoting from within, so this was key to give our transitioning employees a smoother training experience. We ultimately decided to go with Citizen for our Swiss machines, and we also have two conventional Mori Seiki lathes which are our workhorses and rarely break down.
On the mill side, most of our machines were Haas VF2s, and a few of them had a 4th axis or indexer upgrade. One of the first things I noticed was the lack of 5 axis capabilities in our shop. Obviously, there can be a huge price difference between a standard milling machine and a 5-axis mill, so I had to find a way to justify the upgrade. I ended up taking one of the Haas VF2s and adding a trunnion for some 2+3 axis work. It wasn’t true 5-axis, but it was just enough to show off the capabilities. We ended up taking a couple of parts that required 6 setups and reduced both of them down to a single setup. The time savings there was enough to justify the cost savings we would see with 5 axis setups.
Now, we still have the Haas VF2s, but we have also added 2 DMG Mori DMU 50s with full 5-axis capabilities and a Siemens controller. The Siemens controller costs more, but it gives us more versatility with the machine. I am also looking to add another Haas machine with a trunnion to replace some of the older VF2s. The older machines were great workhorses for us, but in today’s world of manufacturing, we need more spindle speed, more horsepower, and more rigidity, especially as we expand our product line into more implants.
When you have a small .020” endmill, any vibration in the spindle translate to the parts, so we need the extra rigidity to be able to expand into more of the implant work here. Right now, we are probably 10% implants and 90% instruments, so we are simply going to need to take on more implant work to keep us growing at the same pace. That is high volume work, so we want to take on more of it, but we will need upgraded machines with higher specs to make that happen at the level of quality we want to be at.
Outside of mills and lathes, we also have two Wire EDM machines and two laser marking machines for internal laser marking. We also have the old standards: a knurling machine, an old lathe, a Bridgeport mill, and a Cincinnati #2 centerless grinder which is from the early 1950s but still holds tolerance. At this point those are mostly auxiliary equipment that we use to help maintain fixtures and handle reworks.
I can imagine that being in the medical field, especially with surgical equipment and spinal implants, that precision and accuracy are key.
You are correct. Quality in medical is extremely important, but especially with implants and instruments. We are putting our parts into people’s bodies, and people here take that very seriously.
We have had conversations with our customers on their thoughts about quality, and the feedback we got was that it isn’t about the machine making the parts as much as the inspection equipment and team. We invested heavily into inspection equipment as a result, and currently use a high range tolerance check with a CMM and an air gauge. We also have a new “tube inspect” machine to check both external and internal diameters. It can take 1,000 hits within one inch of space, and we are the only ones to my knowledge with that machine in the U.S.
What processes do you have in place to ensure you are putting out a top quality product each time?
Our processes are not simple dimensional checks, but we check each part to determine exactly where adjustments are needed. We do in process inspections every shift, twice a shift; once at the beginning and once at the end. That way, we know that we had a good part at the beginning of the shift and we are still putting out a good part at the end of the shift, so we know in between that we have good parts.
We also inspect parts every time they move, both visually and dimensionally. We have invested large amounts of money into different unique trays to keep parts safe and secure so nothing is bumping into other parts during moves. The other unique process we have is for our finish inspection. Each time a setup is finished, we have the machinist submit the first piece for visual approval before moving along to the full dimensional inspection and then a full run.
Working with implants, we need an absolutely clean surface to work with, so surface finish is key. We typically hover around 20-25 RA for our finishes. This visual approval process allows us to move on for more parts with the confidence that we have a good starting point while we wait for deeper level inspection upon completion.
You do have a lot of lathe machines in the shop. What have your experiences been with the Micro 100 turning tools?
We do have quite a few lathe machines, and we have had good luck with our Micro 100 tools. We actually just talked to your Application Engineers about the Micro 100 tools the other day, and how we made many modifications to the tools from their standard starting points. We are working with the AEs to help them optimize more tools for Swiss machines and looking into how we can help to get some of the modifications we are making into more standard products that others can take advantage of.
Who have you been working with from Harvey Performance Company?
Your Application Engineers have been a great resource for us. Don and Pawel have been giving us great feedback on tooling and really helping us in more of a partnership role than just a business to business sales role. These guys have been great with justifying new techniques with our leadership team, helping us stay competitive and taking different approaches to manufacturing.
Don also does lunch and learn presentations with us to teach our guys how to improve the processes. These talks have completely changed things here at MedTorque. Now we have guys looking at how to improve all the time. We are leveraging Don’s experience to improve our processes, and that has been huge for improving our efficiency. We have had plenty of other companies come in, but the guys here always ask for Don and get excited when they hear that he is coming by the shop.
Has your team been using some of our resources like our CAM Tool Libraries?
Absolutely. We work in both ESPRIT and Mastercam, so we have taken advantage of both libraries. Our power users tend to work in Mastercam, but we also provide other platforms depending on people’s backgrounds.
On 5-axis machining, especially, the tool libraries have been useful for us in our precise programming. It’s a real time saver and great for accuracy.
What other resources have you taken advantage of from our websites?
The Helical website has excellent information for speeds and feeds and tech resources. When I have a new programmer or machinist, I will walk him over to the Helical website and walk through the resources on there. We also have been using Machining Advisor Pro (MAP) quite a bit. We find it to be super user friendly and easy to use. We use MAP to make changes to our programs and improve our processes. This keeps our guys sharp and up to date on the latest skills and gives them the power to run their machines with confidence that the numbers are going to work every time.
The Harvey Tool website is also great because it has all the in between sizes for tooling. Everyone has a .125” end mill, but when you need a .062” or .117” end mill or some odd number in between, you guys typically have it. That is super helpful for our guys, and they can easily check the Harvey Tool website for a tool before they place it into the program.
Have you taken advantage of our custom tool programs for particularly difficult operations?
Working with Don and Pawel on custom tooling has resulted in more efficient jobs for us a few times. One that comes to mind is tooling we needed for an implant line of around 150 parts each week. This part used to be 17 minutes, and we got it down to 13 minutes with our own improvements, but ultimately we wanted to get it down to 11 minutes. After talking with the Harvey team, we decided to go the custom tool route to solve some problems. The team from Harvey Tool suggested a custom tool to replace the current tool, a boring bar. That boring bar was going in 15/20 times deep and we wanted to eliminate that as there was a lot of tool deflection and lost time.
Two or three weeks later, Don stopped by with the custom tool. The bore size was good, but the radius wasn’t there. He went back to the drawing board and 2-3 weeks after that initial test we had a new tool, tried it out, and it worked perfectly. We ended up ordering a handful a year ago and they have saved us that two minutes we wanted to shave off the cycle time to get it down under 11 minutes as we intended. After year one, we saw about a $58,000 cost savings just by getting that custom tool, stopping scrapped materials and tooling, reducing tool changes, and minimizing lots of machine downtime.
Are you currently hiring? What do you look for in potential employees?
We are now expanding to three shifts and we have had open positions for two years. So yes, we are always hiring!
Two things I really look for in candidates are work ethic, and information retention of our training. Even focusing on just those two basic things, we have guys who come in for interviews and when we finish a tour they don’t seem like they are retaining what we are telling them about the shop. That gives me a sense of their level of retention, and their true interest in the industry and profession.
We want guys who want to come to work and enjoy the work that they are doing. You can have a good employee who clocks in and out, but you also need a good cultural fit. We don’t need superstars who can’t mesh well with others – we need a super team who works together and keeps the employees engaged and enjoying what they do.
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