When I first arrived at Starkey four years ago, I was both surprised and excited to walk in and see 15 3D printers on the manufacturing floor. When I learned they had been using them for nearly 15 years, I was stunned. To describe Starkey as “ahead of the curve” in this instance would be an understatement.
The hearing aid industry has been on the leading edge of some of the greatest manufacturing technologies that have materialized over the last 20 years, mainly because of the custom aspect of our business. Manufacturing people dream of a world of mass customization, and that has been enabled through 3D printing. Currently, custom hearing aids represent a relatively small part of our industry, only 10 to 20 percent of total sales. However, there is a huge opportunity to reverse that trend from a manufacturing perspective.
One important step in that process is getting more innovation into smaller packages. Most hearing healthcare providers will tell you that patients often ask for the smallest hearing aid available. Generally, that is going to be an invisible in-the-canal hearing aid (IIC), which is a custom device that goes in the ear. However, when they realize the device is so small it can’t fit things like a rechargeable battery, a radio and/ or a sensor into it, the conversation shifts back to something bigger, or behind the ear, which takes a custom product off the table. Needless to say, when Starkey recently released a custom rechargeable device with integrated sensors and wireless connectivity, it was a game-changer. It is now the only custom device with the sensor, the radio and the rechargeable battery all embedded in it.
The other critical step toward providing more custom devices is shrinking the timeline between when an order is placed and when the device is received by the patient. This is where the supply chain and the manufacturing process plays a vital role. With a custom product, the supply chain is longer than a non-custom device, because impressions need to be taken of the patient’s ear at the hearing professional’s office. That’s ultimately where the manufacturing process begins.
The ear impressions are delivered to us, and we scan them to create a digital image that allows us to design a shell that expertly fits the patient’s ear. Currently, a patient must wait up to one week to receive the custom product, compared to instantaneously buying a standard product either off the shelf or receiving it the next day. At Starkey, our operations team’s goal is to shrink that timeline from one week to one day.
To achieve that goal, we’re turning to a macrotrend called Industry 4.0, which is really all about digitizing the end-to-end supply chain and using artificial intelligence, which we use in our hearing devices, and in our manufacturing process. We are currently working on a complex strategy around this, using a roadmap of improvements over time, which we believe will be a massive game changer in this space and will help reverse that trend. This is an exciting development, to say that least.
For more than 50 years, Starkey’s founder, Bill Austin, has led this company based, in part, on his brilliant ability to create custom hearing aids. It is fundamental to who we are, and we are enormously proud to continue to grow and evolve our abilities to manufacture custom devices to help people hear better, so they can live better.