PICKENS COUNTY: AbbottJul 03, 2017 02:21PM ● By Makayla Gay
By Emily Stevenson
In Catholicism, St. Jude is believed to be the patron saint of desperate situations. In that case, it’s a good thing St. Jude Medical has a new name. The Jan. 4 acquisition by Abbott of the St. Paul, Minn.-based company, with local operations in Pickens County, has left them anything but desperate.
St. Jude Medical, founded in 1976, acquired the Liberty site, formerly Ventritex in 1997. The company has been in its current facility in the Commerce Park since 2006.
Abbott, based in the northern suburbs of Chicago, boasts four primary business segments: diagnostics, nutrition, established pharmaceuticals, and medical devices. St. Jude is now part of the latter, with its local facility manufacturing high-voltage capacitors to go into implantable defibrillators and hybrid microelectronic circuits used in defibrillators and pacemakers
“I think one of the things that makes us unique is specifically what we do in terms of developing and manufacturing life-saving medical components,” says Dave Ewing, vice president of operations at Abbott’s Liberty site. “It’s a very straightforward and emotional investment and connection with our workforce here. We always say, no matter what we do, we always think in terms of the patient. The patient could be your mom.”
Because Abbott’s products are built for medical devices to be implanted in the human body, extra precautions must be taken. The company uses a wide array of sophisticated manufacturing processes, including precision-controlled electrochemical processing, laser processing, and high-precision die-stamping processes.
Further, all those processes are done in a clean-room environment, meaning that operators and engineers are often dressed like surgeons. Air is circulated through the room using a high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filter, which turns over the air multiple times an hour.
All of the parts manufactured in the Liberty facility must be identified as well.
“In this type of business, you must maintain complete manufacturing traceability in the components you manufacture,” says Ewing. “We do that using a computer-based manufacturing execution system. Every device we produce has got complete electronic device history and traceability.”
This highly specialized technology and process has led to a unique job-training program within the company.
“Since we’re doing very specialized manufacturing and assembly processes, we have an on-site resident training staff,” Ewing says. “When we have new staff come in, we train them on these specialized manufacturing processes, we assess that performance for those individuals throughout the year, and we retrain and recertify periodically, with that resident training staff. We also document and keep up with all our certifications and training records.”
The plant employs more than 500 individuals to cover all its functions. Employees work in manufacturing operations, engineering, quality control, supply chain, IT, research and development, and administrative positions. Ewing says one of the biggest benefits of its Pickens County location is the workforce.
“Of the points that are key to us, one would be the availability of that direct labor, or talent pool, that live here locally,” he says. “These folks have come out of the textile industry from years back, they have a very strong work ethic, and that’s been a positive for us. We don’t have to go several counties away to get our workforce.”
Ewing also says the company is fortunate to be surrounded by strong technical talent as well. Manufacturing giants such as BMW, Michelin NA, GE, Chemex, and Bosch have helped cultivate a diverse technical pool in the Upstate. Being located 15-20 minutes from Clemson University doesn’t hurt, either.
But more than talent acquisition, Abbott strives to keep new staff members on board – for a long time.
“Since we’ve amassed this pretty diverse experience-based technical staff, we pay attention to retaining our workforce here,” says Ewing. “We do a lot of cross-training, we promote from within.”
Ewing says workforce retention is critical as the company evaluates new processes, components, and technical possibilities. All the research and development for the high-voltage capacitors is done at the Liberty site. Although Abbott can’t comment on any new potential products or developments, Ewing says that in terms of the medical device business in general, there aren’t a lot of competitors.
“The competitors that are there are very competitive and that’s a good thing,” he says. “Each of us has looked to reduce health care costs. All the medical device companies are pushing on those types of initiatives, but providing affordable health care solutions and options for patients, we face that every day.”
Abbott also strives to give back to the community in which it’s based. For more than 15 years, Liberty employees have volunteered with Meals on Wheels. More than 30 employees participated in the program in 2015. The company also partners with, appropriately enough, the American Heart Association. The company holds blood drives four times a year, with a total of 123 pints donated in 2016.
In the end, the company’s business success and charitable efforts come down to the employees.
Says Ewing, “The success of it is based on the involvement of our people.”