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OUTLOOK: AngioDynamics plans a year of training

GLENS FALLS — With more than 50 job openings, big improvements in research and development, and new product lines moving to the Queensbury and Glens Falls plants, this is going to be a big year for AngioDynamics.

Last year was more difficult for the small company, which was founded in Queensbury in 1988. New CEO Jim Clemmer decided to close two of the company’s plants, in Manchester, Georgia and in the United Kingdom. He consolidated all of the company’s manufacturing in Queensbury and Glens Falls, which now has 563 employees.

“The choice I was faced with, I could’ve closed those plants and off-shored it to Mexico or China,” Clemmer said. “And I considered it.”

But as he met with employees, he realized he had something special here.

“These people are really good,” he said. “This is Catheter Valley. People understood catheter science here. If I didn’t have that, I would’ve taken the easy way out.”

It was difficult to justify on paper.

“I’m paying New York wages. That’s more expensive than other places,” he said.

But at the same time, he said, he has a depth of knowledge here.

“We have an engineer up here, he’s redesigning an assembly line his father built. Where else can you find that?” he said.

So instead of closing the plants altogether, he moved everything here and began a wild expansion that will require his employees to train many people this year. The entire oncology department moved here, in addition to the existing vascular department of medical devices.

Although employees from the other plants were offered transfers, no one chose to move to New York. The company is now hiring more than 50 people, including 35 positions from the closure of the other plants.

The need to hire many people was expected, but it means this will be a rebuilding year for the company, Clemmer said.

“Scrap rates will be too high. That’s part of the process. We’re training new people,” he said.

The company must throw away, or “scrap,” any medical device that does not meet stringent quality control.

He hopes to see that rate improve after a year.

“We need to get that learning curve under our belt,” he said. “Everything we do that leaves that plant goes into someone’s body. This year we need to try to get our efficiency level right, make sure quality is right.”

Clemmer is the company’s fourth CEO in 10 years. He was hired to make the company competitive.

“This company has struggled to compete globally,” he said.

While he made his big change last year, by closing two plants, he plans to be thinking about other changes while the company trains new employees this year.

“We made the moves. We need to take a breath. But our brains can be working very quickly,” he said.

Among the items he’s considering for his next move: Does the company have the right portfolio of devices? Are some devices simply not competitive in the global environment?

He also wants to press ahead with new devices. He put $5 million into research and development this year for that purpose.

“Some investors don’t like that,” he said, describing his conversation with them as, “Guys, we’re not going to make as much money next year.”

He has also set in motion a new way to manage research and development. He found that while scientists were good at coming up with innovative ideas and testing them, the process lacked some level of encouragement or empowerment to stop working on ideas that seemed to be failures.

“I had products in there for five years with no end date,” he said. “Some things don’t work.”

Research and development must include a way for scientists to “kill” those products before they waste any more money and time, he said.

“We created a format for that to happen,” he added.

That’s not to say the company isn’t working on promising developments. It has an FDA “breakthrough initiative” approval for a nano knife that treats pancreatic cancer.

Typically, Research and Development begins work on 30 to 40 items to get one success, said Vice President of Global Operations Dave Helsel.

But if they spend too much time pursuing one of the failures, they can’t devote the resources to another new idea.

He thinks the new R&D process will help significantly.

“At an early stage, you want to make sure you’re only going with the products that are going to make it,” Helsel said.

Among the improvements: the company is now checking each idea to make sure it meets needs that are currently unmet. That involves looking at what doctors or hospitals have said they need, he said.

The company also spends a great deal on quality control. One employee physically checks every syringe to make sure they work before they are shipped out, although machines build the devices.

“Look, these are used in chemotherapy,” Helsel said. “One of the things we want is to make sure it works.”

Many items are also custom-made by hand. But for other, more common devices, the plant has 23 machines that run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They are monitored by four shifts of just six people each.

“They change out tools, check that the machines are running,” said Director of Operations Jeremy Sharp. “Quality Control does a first-piece startup to make sure all the dimensions are correct.”

Helsel sees that room as the next place to improve the company. Most of the machines are hydraulic presses. He’s hoping to upgrade to electric presses, which use less energy.

“As time goes on and we look to improve our efficiency, we’ll look to invest in that,” he said.

For other devices, there’s nothing like the personal touch. At one station, workers make 1,500 guide wires every week, which are used to guide the placement of a catheter in a vein. To the end of each wire, workers must solder a spring that is so tiny, it cannot be seen by the naked eye.

“It’s harder than it looks. Look at the screen, not at your hands,” said worker Shannon McDonald. “It’s almost like a talent — not everybody can learn to do it.”

She takes great pride in the fact that the station almost never ruins a wire.

“One day someone in my family might need this,” she said. “So I take a lot of pride in our quality.”