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Hearing the call of rising sales

Firm's growth comes as in-ear technology becomes mainstream

Siemens Hearing Instruments, which manufactures about one-third of the world’s hearing aids, has seen a rise in sales of about 4 percent annually, a figure one company executive believes will be maintained as baby boomers age.

Siemens Hearing Instruments, which manufactures about one-third of the world’s hearing aids, has seen a rise in sales of about 4 percent annually, a figure one company executive believes will be maintained as baby boomers age.

One of the greatest hurdles to the purchase of a hearing aid is acceptance by the user, said Greg M. Oden, vice president of operations at the North American headquarters of Siemens Hearing Instruments, in Piscataway. “People don’t want a hearing aid, it generally means they’re aging — that is something you don’t want. We believe the stigma will lessen as we develop products that are more cosmetically appealing,” Oden said.

That push for new products has helped fuel the firm’s growth. The norm among industries in the United States is to spend about 4 percent of revenue on research and development, according to Booz & Co., the global consulting management firm. At Munich-based Siemens AG, about 7 percent is devoted to research and development, and in Siemens Healthcare — the business group that includes the division for hearing aid development and manufacturing — R&D is about 9 percent, according to Alina Urdaneta, vice president of marketing.

Oden said it is more common in recent years for people to be seen in public with a technical device in their ears, such as Bluetooth headsets or iPod earbuds. “I would say the acceptance level (for hearing aids) is better,” he said. “When I was younger, people didn’t want to wear eyeglasses. As years went by, they were made more fashionable, and acceptance was better.”

On Nov. 3, Siemens announced the launch of six new products, including the iMini, which rests so deep in the ear canal, it is nearly impossible to be seen. Modern technological developments have allowed for miniaturization of such products as cell phones, calculators and computers. Developers of hearing aid products have always worked with the fixed space of an ear canal. The task is to pack as much technology as possible into that fixed space.

In June, the company announced the launch of the Waterproof Aquaris, the first waterproof, dustproof and shock resistant behind-the-ear hearing aid, marketed for such diverse users as swimmers, farmers and construction workers.

This month, Siemens released the newest generation of its iScan technology. The iScan was introduced about six years ago to prevent hearing care professionals from having to ship composite molds of a patient’s ear to the Siemens manufacturing plant. Instead, the iScan, a device about the size and shape of a breadbox, can scan the mold in about two minutes, then relay a 3D-image to Siemens computers in Piscataway, where specifications for a custom in-the-canal hearing aid are drawn. Kim O’Connell, a hearing aid specialist at Micro Instruments, of Montclair, calls the iScan “absolutely phenomenal. It is an incredible time saver.”

The iScan, which uses proprietary medical technology developed by Siemens Healthcare, actually is one of the company’s older products — more than 70 percent of the products assembled in Piscataway are less than two years old, owing to the company’s commitment to research and development.

When Siemens Hearing Instruments introduced the iScan, the modelers — technicians who construct computer models of hearing aids from the 3D images received electronically — worked at computer terminals in China.

In 2010, the jobs of 10 modelers were moved to Piscataway, to allow them to work under the same roof as the assemblers. “Quality was better when the technicians could work in the same location,” Oden said.

About 400 people work in Piscataway, with smaller assembly facilities operating in Minnesota and Ontario, Canada. Of the 400 jobs, about 130 are manufacturing jobs, and the average tenure among the workers is 17 years. The custom made in-the-ear aids are assembled in Piscataway, and make up about 30 percent of Siemens’ sales. Behind-the-ear hearing aids are assembled in Singapore, and distributed from the Middlesex County facility.

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