edical technology, which covers the gamut of medical devices and equipment, is a huge sector in Switzerland. About 700 companies employ approximately 45,000 people in an industry with annual sales of about US$5 billion. A recent visit turned up several companies with strong positions in their respective niches, and plans to grow stronger.
Schiller AG is one of Switzerland's fastest growing medical technology firms. The manufacturer of electrocardiographs (ECGs), blood pressure recorders, patient monitors and external defibrillators was founded in 1974 in the town of Baar, in the central Switzerland canton of Zug. Schiller is famous for its pocket-sized ECG devices and defibrillators used by paramedics, physicians and hospitals and in home-care situations. The company's latest innovation is a compact, lightweight defibrillator.
Schiller's manufacturing sites are in Baar and in Wissembourg, France. The company has experienced dramatic worldwide growth and currently has several facility expansion projects in the works. Even its current headquarters can no longer accommodate its steady growth.
"We have a space problem, says Allesandro L. Zuest, Schiller's operational sales director. "Besides that, we are growing annually by about 10 percent. We therefore also need more space for new employees."
Schiller plans to build a five-story building in Baar which will house up to 70 employees. Zuest says Schiller's global sales staff is also constantly growing. He says Schiller's ongoing growth dictates facility expansion worldwide. The company currently employs between 750 and 800 globally.
"In Mumbai, India, a new office will be built which can accommodate about 150 employees," Zuest says. "In Germany, we just bought land to build the German headquarters for about 40 people. Basically, you do not really need a plan. If the growth comes automatically like it has in the past 36 years, because of growing sales and a wider product range, than it is up to us to adapt to the changing environment."
Much of Switzerland's medical technology industry has evolved from technology and precision developed in the country's venerable watch industry. Dental technology is a significant example. Bien Air Dental, a division of the Bienne-based Bien Air Group, manufactures an assortment of instruments and micromotors used in various dental procedures including implantology.
The company employs about 250 at its two locations nestled in the center of Switzerland's "Watch Valley" near manufacturing operations of Rolex, Omega, Longines and Swatch.
"What we do is very similar to what the watch makers do," says Edgar Schönbächler, the company's director of R&D.
Schönbächler says the company has long-range plans to consolidate the two manufacturing operations. No timetable has been set, but he says it will probably be within the next two to three years, depending on economic conditions. "It [consolidation] would help us be more efficient in our work flow," he says.
Schönbächler says the universities in the Bienne area are business-oriented and provide a good source of employees. He says the company's products are 100 percent Swiss-made, which is important for its marketing efforts. Bien Air, founded in 1959, also has a division which specializes in manufacturing of instruments used in microsurgery.
Another thriving medical technology company is Boudry-based Mikron, which manufactures assembly machinery used by medical device makers and pharmaceutical companies for such products as pen injection devices (used by diabetics), inhalers, nebulizers, diagnostic kits, pumps and catheters. Customers in the life sciences sector include B. Braun, GlaxoSmithKline, Novo Nordisk, Pfizer and Sanofi Aventis.
The company was founded in 1908 in the midst of Switzerland's Watch Valley and much of its technology derives from machining systems developed for the watch industry.
"What we deliver is the assembly system," says Rolf Rihs, COO of the company's Mikron Automation division.