Monday 26 August 2019

Irish plant passes the biomedical test

Beckman Coulter's Irish head tells Fearghal O'Connor how a simple question secured a multi-million future for the high-tech plant in rural Clare

Orlaith Lawler, senior director/leader at Beckman Coulter, Co Clare. Photo: Eamon Ward
Orlaith Lawler, senior director/leader at Beckman Coulter, Co Clare. Photo: Eamon Ward

Fearghal O'Connor

Rows and rows of neatly arranged multicoloured Post-It notes line the walls of Beckman Coulter's biomedical diagnostics manufacturing plant in Tulla.

This part of east Clare might be better known for hurling, fishing and farming but there is a good chance that if you have ever been to a doctor for a blood or urine test, the result was delivered using a dipstick made in this plant or one of its sister plants around Europe or North America.

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Beckman Coulter produces around 20 billion tests a year to check everything from diabetes to fertility. Tulla produces 280 separate lines, not to mention hosting cutting edge research and development for new products. All of it is monitored minute-to-minute through a complex Post-It note systems.

Orlaith Lawler - the boss of an expanding manufacturing site that employs more than 400 people - says the seemingly low-tech Post-It notes are a key tracking tool for management. Every day at 8.20am Lawler and her senior management walk the labyrinthine floor of the plant, reading the notes at 14 individual production lines and a myriad of project rooms and offices.

"We manage our projects very visually," says Lawler. "We believe in Post-Its and putting things up on the wall rather than using a computer program. By 9am you know what happened on every single product the day before," she says. "You also know every product - for which we have at that moment less than ten days supply of in the world - and you'll know where all of those are at. It's busy. But the whole idea is to immediately know where things are without having to open my computer."

Lawler - who also recently took over responsibility for the company's smaller plant in Krefeld, Germany - knows the Tulla plant like the back of her hand. But even she gets confused by all the building work and changes of a major €30m investment. "There was a door there last week," she says, momentarily pausing in confusion, on an otherwise brisk tour of the clean rooms and labs.

The expansion, when finished later this year, will see staff numbers grow by 100 to 420 and there will be room for 80 more people too, she says.

Tulla is becoming one of the most important Beckman Coulter plants globally. It has seen annual growth of over 10pc in its production of crucial blood and urine testing kits in recent years. "These tests can tell you a whole range of things in areas such as fertility or diabetes, for example. Or if you have a suspected heart attack these tests can tell you in less than one hour whether you actually had one or not. They are incredibly sensitive."

They are a vital tool in the medical world but they are also big business. "There are over 100 billion tests done a year globally. That's 14 tests per person per year. In some countries they do lots of tests and in some they do very few. But the rest of the world will catch up," she says.

Beckman has just under 20pc of this overall global diagnostics market. "As a site we have about 280 products and most of them go world wide," says Lawler. The plant takes up one hectare of an 85-hectare estate of rolling farmland. Land is leased to a local farmer, a farmhouse puts up guests to the plant and three lakes benefit from a high tech water management system that ensures supply to the factory but also remain popular for fishing.

The estate was originally bought by a German company to start a diagnostic business after a German biochemist grew friendly with a local man and they decided to go into business together, setting up Flemming GMBH and building the original factory on the land in 1987. Flemming was bought two years later by camera company Olympus as it pushed into the diagnostics business, extending the factory. Beckman Coulter bought that business in 2009. In 2011 Beckman Coulter was in turn bought by Danaher Group, a massive US Fortune 500 conglomerate with over 60,000 employees.

The latest expansion came about with a company investment of €30m into the 9,500-metre facility site this year and last year.

"We are putting on an extra 6,700 metres squared of mainly manufacturing floor at the moment, so it is significant," Lawler says. "The key is to ensure that we can do this without interrupting manufacturing. We had a great two weeks there recently when we saw over €3m worth of equipment come on to the site in just ten days. We had cranes on both sides of the building. One piece of kit was 17.5 metres long but it all went well."

The investment will move Tulla to a higher class of manufacturing capability and clean room. That will allow the plant to produce 11 new blood virus assays - or tests. "The new clean rooms will at the highest level of regulation that we will have ever had here so it is a great development. It really is the next step up," says Lawler.

The first products will roll off the first of these new manufacturing lines later this year.

The expansion has made it the company's biggest and probably most strategic plant in Europe - where it has five plants - with a number of plants in the US too. "We are the only site with so many different pockets of Beckman Coulter on site. It's great for people's development," she says.

Lawler and her team had used a visit by the president of Beckman Coulter to Tulla to tout for the expansion. "He had only been in the job eight days when he came here. But we challenged him on where the capital [investment] was."

At a Town Hall meeting he held during the visit one of the local Clare staff asked a straight question: "Where's the money?"

"I'm only in the job eight days, give me a chance," he responded.

Two months later an email landed in Lawler's inbox from the president to say he had approved the investment. He also sent on a video with a message to the Clare staff, with a particular message for the staff member who had asked him the straight question. "You challenged me when I was there, now I'm sending the challenge back to you," he said. "It was great," says Lawler. "He followed up and he was back here last year."

Prior to that, the Irish end of the business and its staff had undergone some trauma. It was decided that the Beckman Coulter plant in Galway - which was in the city for 40 years - would shut with the loss of 140 jobs and be merged into the Clare facility. Lawler had run the Galway plant before it was merged in 2016 and, along with some colleagues, she moved to Tulla. First to "run the floor", she says, before heading the entire site. "When I came in I suppose I was the Galway girl but there were quite a few people came down from Galway in terms of higher-end jobs. Living through that closure had taught me to appreciate growth and to survive on very little."

In reality, the writing had been on the wall for the Galway plant for some time, she says. Lawler and her team at the newly merged plant knew from the outset that the way to secure the future of the Clare plant was to push for more work.

"We had put in a lot of work around the new business that was coming. We knew it had to go somewhere so we actively pushed. We were hopeful because we get very good results here - no one would doubt that - and the move from Galway had been very well executed."

The move to Clare has only underlined the amazing potential for Danaher - both through Beckman Coulter and its many other business - at the Tulla estate, says Lawler.

"Obviously there is more expansion that can happen here. There is some Danaher sites with multiple Danaher businesses on the same site. We need to get this current expansion up and running successfully first but if we put up our hand they won't knock us down. Growth will come. On the entire site, the opportunities are endless. It's 85 hectares. Danaher are very into cross pollination."

Originally from Malahide, Co Dublin, Lawler spent some of her childhood in Trinidad when her father, an aeronautical engineer, travelled there for his job. "How things work was big around our kitchen table. Taking things apart. I've three sisters and maybe that was part of it... you'd chop the wood as much as anyone. We all ended up doing engineering or science." After a degree in Maynooth in Maths and Biology, she undertook a four-year biochemistry PhD in UCD, focused on heart disease and how its muscles interact. "Some people do a PhD and go into a bit of a black hole but that was real world for me so I enjoyed it."

Her first job in the industry was with Inverness Medical - now part of Abbott Pharmaceuticals - where she worked on the first digital pregnancy test. After three years there she moved to Beckman where she has been for 14 years.

"I started as a scientist in R&D, working on an osteoporosis device. That device is long gone."

The plant - which somewhat unique for an Irish manufacturing site has a 50/50 gender split on its management team - is heavily involved in research and development with about 60 staff in that area, many of whom have PhDs or Master's degrees. "If you are going to be a successful manufacturing site - which we are - you need R&D. Without it you can do the basic juices but you can't do the higher-end products.

"The more high tech we are, the harder we are to move. That is our aim. We have had some really good launches in the last few years, for example a product that tells a woman wondering about her biological clock how many eggs she has left."

The R&D team at Tulla also were part of a global Beckman team that has just launched a new diabetes test that does not require fasting.

Lawler says it is important that new products and research are driven by what customers want.

"I come from an R&D background and I know it is easy to get carried away with what you think you can do. I remember early in my career we were working on a test that could tell you earlier that you were pregnant. But in reality you don't need to know you are pregnant within two days. A week is just fine. So some things are no value add for the customer and it is all about product management to come up with what our customers actually need."

"I love to see new science come in here," she says. "I think it is amazing that we can take all of these raw materials and make something kind of magical. That is pretty cool right? We do a good thing. I just love to see a new product going out the door or new equipment coming on site."

With construction workers buzzing around Beckman Coulter's Clare campus there's likely to be plenty of both going up and down the quiet roads to Tulla.

Curriculum Vitae

Name

Orlaith Lawler

Age

43

Position

Senior director of operations / site lead at Clare and Krefeld, Germany

Lives

Galway

Education

Maths and biology degree in Maynooth, biochemistry PHD in UCD, Master's in project management at the University of Limerick

Previous experience

Inverness Medical

Family

Married to former Mayo footballer James Nallen

with three boys, Dillon (7), Sean (5) and Cillian (4)

Favourite Movie

Shawshank Redemption

Favourite Book

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Favourite Holiday

Going back with my sister to Trinidad and Tobago (where they lived for some years as children)

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