Space age mechanical design: Mectalent’s precision products span the globe – and beyond

In a spacious meeting room, the Chairman of the Board of Mectalent Olli Karhi picks up a small skull from the cupboard. The skull has metal holders screwed on top of it, from which flexible metal twisters emerge. Although it could easily be mistaken for a movie prop, the skull is an example of an actual surgical operation. “There’s a medical condition called craniosynostosis, which means that the seams of a child’s skull ossificate prematurely, impeding brain growth. With help from a pediatric surgeon here in Oulu, we developed the distractor mechanism some five years ago.” First the child undergoes surgery where the ossificated part of the skull is separated and the distractor mechanism is installed, then the actual treatment for skull growth happens at the patient’s home. He demonstrates on the skull, explaining how the twisters – the actual distractors, to be precise – fine-tune the titanium mechanism. “Two turns a day equal one millimeter of skull seam expansion. In three or four weeks, the mechanism is removed and the skull bone repairs itself in a matter of a few months.”

One can’t help but wonder how simple it sounds, but there’s an extraordinary amount of design, precision testing, and authority approval behind it all. We take a tour of the site, and sure enough, there are 3D models, blueprints galore, a metal workshop chock-full of specifically engineered parts that end up in hospitals, surgery rooms, space stations and industrial sites. Karhi picks up a stiff coil.

Heart of titanium

“This is a solid titanium frame for a new kind of heart valve operation. The idea is that by attaching the frame to the heart, the patient’s leaking heart valve can be tightened, which removes the need for an artificial valve. We’ve tested it in Helsinki and Oulu, and we are now entering the multicenter phase, where it will be tested with 300-400 patients around Europe. If all goes well, we’ll get a CE and then we can go into production.”

It’s apparent that with medical instruments – stuff that gets put inside you, no less – the testing periods are extensive. The annuloplastic ring, which is the actual term for the coil, has been in testing for seven years. An average of ten years of development and testing is a good estimate of the path towards the required approval from the authorities for such instruments. The ISO 13485 certificate is a must, and Mectalent must be able to present the manufacturing chain from raw material onwards if needed. However, the medical industry isn’t the only one requiring such accuracy and control. “This is a duplicate of a piece that is currently closer to the Moon than the Earth”, he says, holding a titanium corner frame that’s designed for solar panel mounts. “With mechanical engineering meant for extraterrestrial use, the specifics are instantly different. The environment is hostile, so the parts have to be durable. Also, weight is important, since logistics in space are not exactly cheap.”

Business stability

Karhi sees growth potential for precision manufacturing, and thanks to TEKES, there are a lot of start-ups in the field. To set things off, he calls for more research on the applicable fields in mechanics, not just basic academic research. Mectalent does business in a field where the trend isn’t about to go away anytime soon. With the ageing population in Western countries and the need for treatment for older people constantly on the rise, they’re looking at steady growth.

“We recently agreed a contract with a new client in China, so that market is only beginning to unfold. However, our main market is still Europe and the United States, since that’s where our networks currently are.” With more than a million self-designed instruments sold globally by Mectalent alone, their market is more than established.