Northeast Indiana, with its largest city being Fort Wayne (seen above), may strike many as mostly a land of corn fields. Even driving through these parts, a passerby may not realize this is a major hub for medical device manufacturing. Warsaw, Indiana, a short drive from Fort Wayne, is known as “The Orthopedic Capital”. Most of the orthopedic implants used in the United States, such as hips, knees, plates, and screws, are manufactured within this corner of Indiana. Northeast Indiana is responsible for the majority of the world’s hips and knees, so if you have one, it’s probably made by a few very experienced machinists who call this area home. We were invited by Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, an economic development group, to visit companies that are great examples of the craftsmanship going on in this part of the Midwest and to learn why they decided to locate here.
The ortho industry in Warsaw began in 1895 when Revra DePuy founded DePuy Manufacturing to produce fiber splints. In 1927, an employee of Mr. DePuy, Justin O. Zimmer, founded his own splint manufacturing firm in Warsaw to build aluminum splints. The companies that carry these men’s names are still in Warsaw, but now they’re huge multi-national firms that sell knees, hips, and all kinds of other devices. And they helped spring up dozens of other firms and created a region where generations of people have devoted their careers to designing and building orthopedic devices. Even big firms that were founded elsewhere have built plants and bought smaller firms around Fort Wayne, including Stryker, Medtronic, and Wright.
The 11 county region known as Northeast Indiana has a number of economic development programs that help foster growth. Because firms are actually eager to settle here, there’s a constant shortage of qualified people to work all the precision machines that produce small, perfectly crafted metal parts. To that end, there’s focus on education with institutions supporting the training of tool and die craftsmen. Ivy Tech community college, for example, has an orthopedic lab and teaches the medical regulatory environment and how things get through the FDA. The regional economic development organizations are constantly looking for more people to join these educational programs, and students from local high schools are even offered a chance to enroll in a course or two to get an idea of the orthopedic device industry. These organizations have also been raising awareness of the ortho industry in nearby universities to get students there excited about the potential to work in a highly technical niche field that helps people live better lives.
A group particularly focused on growing the orthopedic business is OrthoWorx. It’s explicitly founded to preserve and extend the legacy of this region as the Orthopedic Capital of the World. The organization brings together business folks, academia, and others in the community to build relationships that lead to new collaborations and greater ventures. The org helps with talent development, bringing new talent into the region, and gets players to work together on innovative new projects. The group’s membership includes such names as Medtronic, Zimmer Biomet, Purdue University, University of Notre Dame, and Ball State University.
The region has an unemployment rate consistently below the national average, and it weathered the recession much better than most of the rest of the country. The orthopedic industry is not recession proof, though, but recession resistant. People do tend to put off some surgeries when there’s uncertainty, but a lot of the procedures can’t wait and the benefits of the implants are so great that business stays quite steady.
Because of the experienced machinists living in this area, there’s also a healthy representation of aerospace and auto firms. And of course there’s a lot of agriculture around, and a lot of the medical device firms have corn fields just past their parking lots.
As you can imagine, life can be pretty quiet here, but there’s a good deal of good restaurants in the area, lots of outdoor recreation, and Fort Wayne can be proud of its substantial cultural venues. The population is growing and infrastructure has been growing along with it. A new minor league baseball field has recently been built for the Fort Wayne TinCaps, a San Diego Padres affiliate. A new six-thousand seat venue is on the way just a couple blocks away, and downtown Fort Wayne is undergoing a steady transformation that signals it’s vying to become a nationally recognized economy.
In the coming days we’ll be publishing a few reports on some of the individual ortho firms that we visited to give you an idea of their histories, how they operate, and why they’re excited to be in this part of Indiana.
We thank the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership for hosting us on the trip and showing us around.