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China Array goes off beaten path in medical molding industry


  Russ Johnson

Companies specializing in precision engineering and high-performance plastics may still be something of a rarity in commodity-oriented China.

But for Pittsfield, Mass.-based China Array Plastics LLC, it's a path the company has been walking for a decade now.

The U.S. company, with a small injection molding factory in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, recently disclosed details of a blood-testing device it manufactures there for Boston-based Jana Care.

The device slots into a smartphone to transmit data to a laboratory.

"We're kind of a boutique injection molder for the high-tech industries," said China Array President Russ Johnson, in an interview.

"A lot of high-tech companies have a great idea that needs to be introduced to the real world," he said. "We're very good at taking their concept, give them advice on material selection, manufacturability and how to tool it, then we build it for them."

China Array, which makes and assembles Jana's Aina Mobile Blood Monitoring System for commercial distribution in Asia, is working on an upgrade that Jana hopes to bring to global markets.

In a joint news release from the two companies, Jana executives said the central China location helps lower production costs, a key for its global sales strategy.

"Wuhan... was a great option to keep the cost of the device affordable, which is key to our goal of maximizing usage in all geographies," said Michal Depa, Jana Care's chief technology officer.

The bulk of China's plastics industry is concentrated within a short drive of Shanghai or the Pearl River Delta in southern China. But when Johnson was casting about for a place to set up his factory in 2006, he chose the inland industrial city of Wuhan, home to a sizable car manufacturing industry.

The explanation is simple -- Johnson, who has been doing business in China since 1980, had connections there.

He said the city of 10 million offers a skilled labor force, good engineering universities, and lower wages than other areas.

Its location, as capital city of central China's Hubei province, also offers recruiting advantages, Johnson said. Some of China Array's 40-plus workers came to Wuhan after laboring as migrant workers elsewhere in the country.

"Our core group of employees has all been with us for eight to 10 years," he said. "That kind of loyalty is unusual for China."

The 20,000-square-foot Wuhan plant runs six injection molding machines, including a recently acquired 25-ton Arburg vertical machine to handle insert molding. The company plans to add another Arburg vertical machine within the year.

The company's Pittsfield has three engineers plus two support staff.

In its work for Jana, China Array executives focused on production of small parts and assembly.

"There's a big push in medical to go to miniaturization," he said.

Jana said it found China Array through mutual connections in the medical device industry in Massachusetts.

"Having taken the Aina concept as far as CAD and 3D printing could carry it, we needed to move on to injection molded prototypes followed by rapid, scalable manufacturing," said Jana Care's Depa.

Johnson said the device required a lot of precision engineering.

"The angle of the light was very crucial and the reflective surface was very crucial," he said. "It's very small and has to snap into a housing."

China Array said its engineers came up with a polycarbonate/ABS blend to do that.

The device can be used either by patients or health care screeners who don't have a laboratory nearby. It is used to analyze HbA1c -- a key to diabetes screening -- along with blood glucose, hemoglobin and lipids from a capillary blood sample.

Many of China Array's projects require high-performance plastics that can withstand very high heat and often offer other attributes, such as chemical or friction resistance.

A typical application is the continuously variable transmission found in off-road vehicles, such as Oakville, Ontario-based BPG Werks's DTV Shredder -- sort of a Segway with tank treads.

When a brass driveshaft gear wore out too quickly under the Shredder's grueling operating conditions, BPG turned to China Array, which developed a polyetheretherketone-overmolded-steel solution.

Intellectual property protection is a key issue for the company's customers. Thirty percent of its customers are Chinese, but China Array writes its contracts under U.S. law and does tooling in-house.

"We have complete control of the process," Johnson said. "We're acutely aware of intellectual property protection and I think we're set up as well as anyone to deal with it."

Despite its success, China Array has no plans to open a U.S. factory. "We're pretty committed to China," Johnson said.

"China is still quite underserved with high-performance thermoplastic molding, whereas in the United States there are several very good molders of that type," he said. "You have to be completely focused on that."


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