No fatigue for Instron

Posted on 4 Jan 2010 by The Manufacturer

Instron, a world class manufacturer of testing instruments and systems, has recently diversified into the biomedical market, as TM associate editor Edward Machin discovered.

Established in 1946 by MIT alumni Harold Hindman and George Burr, Massachusetts-based Instron is a best in class manufacturer of test instruments, systems, accessories and services. As such, the company’s remit includes the design and manufacture of an increasingly broad range of testing systems that measure the physical properties of materials and components. Additionally, Instron’s IST division manufactures systems to test complete structures and components, largely for the automotive industry.

With a sales volume that exceeds $250m, and an installed base of more than 70,000 machines globally, the business has been at the vanguard of the materials testing equipment industry since its inception, in sectors including: aerospace; transportation; consumer products; contract testing services; and biomedical.

Accordingly, Instron was the first company in its sector to use strain gauge in measuring force; solid state electronics; computerised testing systems; infrared lighting; and reverse-stress loading – enabling electromechanical machines to go through zero from tension to compression testing.

The company has significant operational facilities in Boston, Frankfurt, and High Wycombe, the latter of which is responsible for selling and servicing Instron’s product testing line in Europe. Similarly, the UK facility represents Instron’s global centre of excellence for fatigue testing – i.e. the exercising of materials or components, often to a failure.

In 2005 Instron was acquired by Illinois Tools Works (ITW), a $17bn diversified manufacturer of advanced industrial technologies – with a portfolio of 895 business units specialising in ‘clever manufacturing’. Indeed, says manufacturing director Malcolm Buchanan: “When we joined ITW, one of the most telling comments they made was that we as a company had finally found our home, a sentiment which has proven to be not only reassuring, but ultimately correct.” While ITW specialise in acquiring small, diverse companies, autonomy is very much the organisational model.

Consequently, Instron reports its monthly figures, sales inventories, and related information to its parent company, but remain, for all intents and purposes, an autonomous entity.

Explains Buchanan: “ITW have certain corporate mandates and guiding themes which its companies are expected to use, and if we weren’t catching the religion, so to speak, they would certainly nudge us in the right direction. However, we were converts from the outset, and remain happy to use the expertise they offer, together with the knowledge sharing visits we undertake to other companies — and vice versa — within ITW’s diverse portfolio. Crucially, however, there is no obligation to implement anything that is gleaned from such exchanges; you simply cherry pick that which fits best and use it to your advantage, which we are certainly doing.”

Recent years have seen Instron move towards cellular operations, with the factory floor arranged into semiautonomous, self-contained work cells – enabling the manufacture of complete products. This allows, says Buchanan: “The avoidance of cross-charging and allocation of costs, thus simplifying the administration associated with the manufacturing aspect of our business.” Similarly, the company has implemented backflushing and minimising the use of work orders to control and account for what occurs within the organisation on a day-to-day basis. While Instron has somewhat backed off from the more detailed, non-value added measurement, the company “concurrently undertake detailed investigation so as to understand exactly what is going on at the ‘coal face’,” says Buchanan.

He continues: “It is particularly important that we don’t assume the company has reached its cellular pinnacle, and that there is no more work to do. Indeed, this continual benchmarking is redolent of Instron’s culture of delegating down through the organisation responsibility for the cell and its performance.

As a result, we have seen steady improvement in the bottom line. However, this can be attributed to the fact that as a company we are doing lots of little things correctly, as opposed to a single silver bullet.”

One of the tenets that ITW holds particularly important is that of supporting innovation and encouraging its companies to patent their ‘clever ideas.’ Accordingly, in 2007 Instron introduced a range of linear electric motor powered fatigue testing machines particularly suited to customers with cleaner requirements – the biomedical sector, for example.

Says Buchanan: “The genesis of our linear-motor fatigue machines came from the highly advanced controller technology which we had been using on hydraulically powered testing machines.” Given that Instron had to combine such an approach with the development of its linear-motor fatigue machines, the process was “exceptionally challenging. As a company we went through a period of intense technical development, combining it with our extended supply chain only when we were satisfied that the product represented the best of breed quality that our customers have come to expect from Instron,” says Buchanan.

As with the majority of Instron’s R&D, the design expertise for its linear-motor fatigue machines was conducted by its in-house engineers. Nonetheless, given that a number of the machine’s modules — such as power amplifiers/supplies — were purchased from outside sources, Instron required its suppliers to actively push their capability boundaries, thus creating a trickle down from the design remit into the extended supply base.

Says Buchanan: “Due to the collaborative nature of such relationships, there were tangible benefits for both parties, in that Instron was exploring the capabilities and performance of our suppliers’ equipment beyond what they would normally expect from a customer. As a result, each company in the partnership learned a significant amount about the performance of their products that they wouldn’t have known without such an intense, but ultimately fulfilling, collaborative process. Coupled with the bringing to market of a sector-leading range of products, it was the receipt of such feedback that made the journey particularly pleasing for Instron, and one that we will seek to replicate in future design briefs.”

The best medicine?
Arguably the most defining aspect of Instron’s recent developments has been the major growth the company has seen in its supply of testing equipment to biomedical organisations and companies. Such includes strength, durability, and wear testing on applications as varied as knee and hip joints, heart valves, and arterial stents.

Indeed, says Buchanan: “When we say that the company supplies testing for the majority of objects that one uses and sees in everyday life, it increasingly applies to things within you too.” During the early part of 2009 Instron supplied a number of multi-station machines — designed to ascertain the durability of stents. To quantify, when an individual’s arteries are being restricted, medical science has developed so as to allow the placing of a device (a stent) inside the artery to hold it open. As the heart pumps, and the artery expands and contracts, the devices are being exercised at all times.

It remains crucial that those companies who manufacture the products are able to accurately predict the device’s lifespan so that they can continue to refine the design – ensuring that a replacement isn’t needed any earlier than necessary.

As a result, the ingenuity of the medical profession and their requirements — including a process of extensive testing — are feeding back through the supplier chain to the components that are needed for such devices. Confirms Buchanan: “We have a growing number of customers globally who have purchased systems from Instron with this degree of cutting-edge technology.” As an organisation, Instron recognised early the sector’s considerable scope for growth. While the company’s traditional markets have been in metals, plastics, and associated materials testing, in developed territories there is less to be discovered about the behaviour of those components.

The biomedical market, conversely, says Buchanan: “Is very much in its infancy, and we feel this to be a particularly attractive feature of our continued work within the sector.

Although it represents but one component within Instron’s portfolio, biomedical testing is indubitably one of growing importance for the company. Given that people are, in general, living longer, we feel it vital to continue testing that equipment which furthers healthy human life. Coupled with the company’s world class expertise across our traditional sectors, such a mandate represents a greatly exciting future for Instron.”