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Ever since Swiss Federal Councillor Alain Berset visited Hamilton Medical’s production site during lockdown, Switzerland learned about Graubünden’s role in producing ventilators for the whole world. What is it that sets the Hamilton Group apart from other companies? The answer is focus and innovation.
If you visit the imposing Hamilton Medical buildings in Bonaduz and Domat/Ems, you will find production halls, fully and semi-automatic machinery, and white-clothed people working with resolute industriousness on supplying nothing less than the air we need to breathe. Hamilton Medical, a Hamilton Group venture, has been manufacturing ventilators for intensive care since 1983. Anyone who thinks these are nothing more than automated bicycle pumps is not far off the mark, laughs Alexander Starcevic, Director of Marketing: “Frequency, volume and pressure are important parameters when it comes to bicycle pumps and ventilators. What makes a ventilator more complex is naturally that individual clinical values should be attained for every patient, especially the oxygen and carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the blood. The ventilator must be set to the right values for the rate of breathing and pressure or volume. At the same time, ventilation must be as gentle on the lungs as possible.” So not quite a bicycle pump!
In Graubünden, Hamilton Medical manufactures state-of-the-art equipment that saves lives on a daily basis; it is “one of the big three” in this sector. The coronavirus crisis has led to a level of demand that is “actually no longer doable,” says Alexander. “After all, you cannot simply increase your capacity tenfold overnight.” Yet Hamilton Medical is on track to produce about four times the quantities of a normal year in 2020. The first task at the start of the crisis was to ensure that they could always deliver spare parts – ensuring that all Hamilton equipment already in operation could be kept operational. “We allocated a quota from the outset, which means we limited how many parts our customers could order to ensure that we did not have a supermarket-like toilet paper situation on our hands.” However, he was very thankful that the Federal Office of Public Health took on the distribution of the equipment in Switzerland. “It’s a very odd situation when you have to decide who gets one and who doesn’t.”
Only a cynic would claim that this crisis was a win for companies such as Hamilton Medical. “Of course business is good for companies in the sector right now,” says Alexander. But this may well be the very thing that poses problems in the years to come: “At that stage, we will be faced with the risk of market oversaturation. So we are not especially happy about the situation, neither from a social nor from a business perspective.”
Even then, Hamilton Medical will continue to set itself apart from the rest with its focus on ventilation, its intelligent technology and its innovation. Innovation and technical intelligence are attributes that form part of the DNA of the entire Hamilton Group: take for instance the robotics business unit, which manufactures automated devices for analysing the smallest liquid quantities – playing its own role in helping labs around the world to overcome the COVID-19 crisis in the process.
For Alexander, these Hamilton character traits are “the only way of effectively positioning ourselves as a company; others will always be more attractive when it comes to price”. The company itself was founded based on a visionary idea. After talking to a NASA scientist, Steve Hamilton, a second-generation member of the owner family, came up with the idea of reversing the principle of machine ventilation. In conventional ventilation, mechanical parameters such as frequency, pressure or volume are set on the ventilator, and the oxygen and carbon dioxide in the patient’s blood are measured. Then the parameters on the ventilator are reset, the patient’s values are measured again and the parameters reset until the desired oxygen and carbon dioxide levels are achieved.
“So Steve Hamilton had an idea: Why not simply proceed on the basis of the clinical target? We tell the ventilator which value we want for oxygen and carbon dioxide, and the equipment will adjust its settings accordingly.” It took more than 20 years to develop; the first model arrived on the market 10 years ago. “This vision really was ahead of its time, and even today, there is still a lot of work to be done raising awareness about the technology in order to win the trust of the medical and nursing professions.” However, it is expected that acceptance for such systems will continue to increase – especially when there are staff shortages – since intelligent assistance systems are becoming more and more prevalent in our everyday lives, for example in cars. The latest innovation from Hamilton Medical was launched three years ago – a software that better synchronises the respiratory efforts of the patient with the ventilator, thus making the process more comfortable for the patient. And there’s more to come: an entire interdisciplinary department comprising around 20 employees is developing ideas and testing, rejecting and developing technologies that will continue to keep the world on its toes for the foreseeable future.