When Professor Graeme Clark defied the naysayers to invent the first cochlear implant in the early `80s, he was set to transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
The first recipient, Melbourne man Graham Carrick, hadn’t been able to hear for 17 years. When the sound processor on his implant was switched on, nothing happened for 15 minutes.
Then everything changed. “I heard a ‘ding dong’ and I said to myself ‘bloody hell!” Carrick recalled on the 30th anniversary of the world-first surgery. “Tears ran down my face.”
Many iterations of that technology later, Cochlear is continuing to break new barriers – and its own records. Last financial year, the ASX-listed company posted record sales of $941 million.
Headquartered in Sydney, Cochlear operates in more than 100 countries, with 2800 employees worldwide.
Senior vice president of manufacturing and logistics, Greg Bodkin, says a quest to constantly improve customer service and chase innovation has kept Cochlear ahead of the curve.
It now has three main worldwide competitors, but Mr Bodkin says Cochlear is two or three times larger than all of them. Cochlear reinvests about 12 per cent of its annual earnings into R&D to ensure it has a technology advantage over its competitors, says Mr Bodkin.
He says Cochlear’s latest speech processor, the tiny Nucleus 6, is almost unrecognisable from the technology pioneered in the `80s, which was worn on the body in a similar way to a Sony Walkman.
Like every upgrade, the Nucleus 6 sound processor, which automatically adjusts to different environments (for example a noisy restaurant), has led to an increase in demand.
Even more innovative has been the range of wireless accessories that Cochlear has linked to the Nucleus 6, allowing the wearer to better hear family or friends, or sounds coming from their TV or smartphones.
Mr Bodkin says it’s the only true wireless technology in the world for use with cochlear implants.
As an Australian manufacturer and exporter whose products are sold in the major markets of North America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the Asia-Pacific, the company continues to look for ways to remain competitive in a global environment, says Mr Bodkin.
He says Cochlear has refined the way it operates, always striving for improved operating efficiencies and effectiveness. Applying Lean principles and automation has been a big part of making the company as competitive as possible.
“There are certainly things that we would have done 15 years ago that we don’t do today,” says Mr Bodkin.
While the company has moved some of its non-core functions overseas, the precision manufacturing work still takes place at three manufacturing sites across Sydney and Brisbane.
“The manufacturing of the implants or manufacturing of a speech processor is quite difficult – it requires a lot of skill and a lot training,” says Mr Bodkin.
He believes that Australian manufacturers shouldn’t waste time trying to compete against low-cost, low technology products.
However Mr Bodkin says that many technology competitors have manufacturing operations based in North America and Europe. Australian manufacturers can continue to compete on niche products by repurposing their own technology, products or skills, he says.
As for Cochlear, emerging markets such as China and India, plus an ageing global population point to enormous potential for continued growth.
The company recently supported Australian-Indian movie unINDIAN, starring cricketing great Brett Lee. The movie’s main female character works at Cochlear, with some of the scenes filmed at Cochlear’s offices.
“We saw it as a chance to get our brand out there, and also to increase the awareness of hearing loss as an issue,’” says Mr Bodkin, who adds that many overseas countries still don’t screen babies for hearing problems at birth.
Typically, three in 1000 people in the world will experience a condition that makes them suitable for a cochlear implant, says Mr Bodkin.
Meanwhile, decades after Professor Clarke’s original breakthrough, Cochlear’s mission remains the same, even though it’s now carried out on a much broader scale.
“Every day we give 150 people that couldn’t hear yesterday a chance to hear,” says Mr Bodkin.