Paula snuggles up to her mum and listens spellbound to her bedtime story. She loves books, especially when someone reads to her. The five-year-old's ability to hear words and even music was something that seemed impossible shortly after her birth. Paula was born profoundly deaf. She couldn't hear the voices of her parents and siblings or the sounds of her environment. One in 1,000 children in Germany is born without hearing, like Paula. Their families are then faced with a decision. Do they choose hearing implants or sign language? Paula's parents were committed to providing their daughter with the most inclusive life possible, so they opted for a cochlear implant. A cochlear implant is a hearing aid that is implanted in the cochlea.
These hearing systems consist of an audio processor with a microphone, and the implant itself. Patients wear the processor behind their ear. It detects sounds in the environment and adjusts the tones and volume, reduces distracting background noise and amplifies subtle sounds. Surgeons insert the implant under the skin. The cochlear implant assumes the role of sensory hair cells in the ear by electrically stimulating the auditory nerve, thereby restoring the ability to hear.
The Austrian company MED-EL, based in Innsbruck, specializes in the development and manufacture of cochlear implants. Its product portfolio includes implantable and non-implantable hearing systems. The family business has 2,500 employees. In addition to clinics and medical professionals, audiologists are also among the customers who provide ongoing support to patients post-surgery.
Dietmar Köll, production manager at MED-EL, explains: "Not being able to see separates you from things - not being able to hear separates you from people." Köll and his team are working to change that. "With our products, we want to overcome hearing loss as a barrier to communication and quality of life and help people regain their zest for life. It is a lovely job."
MED-EL focuses on a wide range of products, because people's ears - or cochleas - are as unique as the individuals themselves. Dietmar Köll explains: "We adopt an extremely dynamic approach to our work and try to incorporate customer feedback into our products. That is why we offer a very broad portfolio with a modular structure. We have a range of processors and implants. We assemble these products based on the individual requirements of the patients. This allows us to find the optimal solution for different hearing situations."
Producing small batches with customized markings is a routine task at the Innsbruck production facility. This is where MED-EL assembles the cochlear implants and audio processors and applies markings to the small metal and plastic components. The Tyrolean hearing experts are currently focusing on two particular trends: To make the devices more comfortable to wear, the components are becoming ever smaller, while at the same time the requirements for traceability and documentation of products and manufacturing processes are increasing. The production team therefore has to apply more and more markings in ever-tighter spaces. The markings also have to be legible and durable. This requires dependable production technologies with stringent standards.
MED-EL uses three TruMark Station 5000 machines from TRUMPF to do the job. Equipped with lasers from the TruMark Series 3000, they mark components made of titanium, platinum-iridium and plastic. Deputy production manager Christoph Fankhauser explains: "We mainly apply serial numbers and unique device ID codes, or UDI for short, to metal and plastic parts. This machine-readable, universal product code is mandatory for medical devices in Europe. We also label the parts with symbols such as arrows and instructions to make handling easier for users." Uniform gradients are of utmost importance for MED-EL, as many of the labels are prominently displayed on the final product. A high contrast is crucial for this because it ensures good readability. "And, of course, the markings must be reproducible. In other words, the result must always be the same, even if there are possible fluctuations in material quality," emphasizes Fankhauser. "This requires a high level of power stability. The TruMark laser meets these requirements - even on the tiniest components."
Paula is unaware of all the dedication and hard work put in by the cochlear experts. For Paula, the joy of running around the house loudly with her siblings and attending kindergarten every day is simply part and parcel of her daily routine. Her cochlear implant has brought sound to life for her, and she now relishes it with all her senses.