Founded in Taiwan in 1989 by a young Swedish entrepreneur, Roger Samuelsson, SHL Medical has grown from a small medical-device supplier to one of the world’s leading designers and producers of autoinjectors. Of the company’s approximately 5,000 employees globally, 4,600 work at one of its nine facilities in Taiwan, all of them located in Taoyuan.
In line with SHL’s dedication to constant innovation, the company is currently in the midst of a two-year program to completely digitalize its operations. “Innovation is no longer just about technical advances and designing the latest, newest device,” says SHL Medical Taiwan Managing Director Martin Turvill. “Rather, it’s about everything needed to support that design and manufacturing.” Increasingly, that means making optimum use of data.
SHL’s operations have long generated massive amounts of documentation, including data covering design, process, testing, simulation, materials, and other aspects. This includes analytical details of its raw materials to the amount of force needed to remove the cap from a device. “The data was there, but it was not yet being used in an integrated manner that would bring the most value to our design and production processes,” says Turvill. “We have begun integrating all that information and make it easily accessible throughout the organization” – for example to the team tasked with designing the next product or even a new cap for an existing product. “This allows our design engineers to make data-driven decisions that are better aligned with the manufacturing teams,” Turvill adds.
Another objective of the innovation drive is to continue to achieve greater product simplicity. Since the purpose of SHL products is to enable patients to self-administer the medicine they require, the company is highly aware of the need to make these devices as easy and intuitive to use as possible. In 2006, SHL became one of the world’s first companies to bring the modern autoinjector to market. Since then, various generations of development have brought the auto-injection process down to the two-step approach – just uncap and inject – found in SHL’s Molly® family of devices. That convenience and ease-of-use is especially important for patients who may be wracked in pain, such as during a migraine attack, or have difficulty with manual dexterity, as may occur with rheumatoid arthritis.
A further advantage that the autoinjectors bring the patient is added safety, both in terms of protection from needle sticking and assurance of proper dosage.
As SHL looks to the future, Turvill sees sustainability as the next major area for innovation. “Once an autoinjector is fired, it has to be disposed of, so it clearly has an environmental impact,” he notes. “Our innovation team is looking at how we can make these items as recyclable as possible. Each one contains glass, metal, plastic, rubber, and a drug, so it’s going to be a challenge. But we’re looking very seriously at what can be doable.”
To tackle all these challenges, SHL maintains innovation teams in three locations – Taiwan and in its design and development centers in Stockholm, Sweden and in Deerfield, Florida in the U.S. It is also setting up a fourth design team in Switzerland to further expand its innovation portfolio. And the innovation process requires input from a variety of different disciplines. “What we’re involved in today is more than the basic R&D of five or ten years ago, when it was just a matter of getting the designers and engineers together,” says Turvill. “Now we need to include the data experts and specialists in statistical analysis, as well as the simulation experts and material experts. Bringing all these functions and disciplines together helps us improve the quality of our products, making the innovation of both products and processes much more meaningful.”
Turvill says SHL has had no difficulty finding the talent it needs in Taiwan to match its steady expansion and the development of ever more advanced products. “The skills are here, and we’ve seen the standard of engineering and standard of education getting better and better over the years.” He notes that two decades or so ago, Taiwanese workers were good at following directions but tended to be reluctant to voice their opinions and show initiative. “That’s no longer the case, and Taiwan’s diverse and prolific talent pool have truly been the backbone of the company’s success,” Turvill says.
During this year of COVID-19 pandemic, SHL’s business has continued to grow smoothly. In part, that increase represents an extension of existing trends, especially the steady rise in the amount of pharmaceutical sales accounted for by biologic and biosimilar drugs, which need to be administered through injection. Since these drugs are generally more viscous and require higher volumes, SHL has continuously developed new models to accommodate those specifications.
At the same time, autoinjectors have indirectly contributed to the fight against this year’s special circumstances. “When the coronavirus situation happened, many people who previously went to the hospital to get their injection realized it would be best to avoid taking the bus and going to a crowded public place,” Turvill says. “Now they’re finding that they can do the procedure conveniently from home, and that’s something the health authorities are encouraging.”