From the Mountain State to the Emerald Isle: The Huntington-Cork Connection

(This article appeared in the 1Q 2008 issue of Alcon’s quarterly global magazine, Alcon World News.)

While growth – both in sales and manufacturing output – can certainly be good for a company’s bottom line, it also can pose some daunting challenges: Do you have the space to build new facilities at your existing plant? Can you find enough qualified people to staff your enlarged operation? Do you have a supplementary manufacturing facility that can serve as a back-up in the event of production shortfalls or a crisis?

With these questions in mind, Alcon management decided in 2003 to transform the company’s Cork, Ireland, refractive laser plant into an IOL manufacturing location to supplement Alcon Huntington’s output. The change required a substantial reorganization involving not only the transfer of the refractive business to the Orlando Technology Center, but also extensive work with Alcon Huntington to facilitate the hand-off of the AcrySof® single-piece IOL manufacturing process to Cork.

This unique partnership between the two facilities, which are separated by five time zones, 3,000 miles of ocean and – judging by the very different dialects – a common language, involved a number of hurdles. Perhaps the most significant challenge was the need to transform Cork’s traditional production facility into the highly controlled cleanroom environment required for IOL manufacturing.

According to Bill Richardson, Vice President, Manufacturing – Surgical Operations, to say this massive undertaking required mere “cooperation” is an understatement. “It’s been a very big project. A lot of people have spent quite a bit of time travelling back and forth between the two locations and working together to implement this. Outside of Manufacturing, employees from all levels and from many different teams throughout the company have had a hand in it, including Corporate Engineering; IT; Corporate Safety, Security and Environmental Affairs; and a host of other departments in Ireland and the United States.”

By mid-2004, after countless phone calls, e-mails and trans-oceanic visits aimed at exchanging knowledge and training, the transformation of the Cork facility was complete. On June 24 of that year, the Cork team made its first shipment of IOLs (made partly in Ireland and partly in Huntington) to Alcon’s Central Stores in Puurs, Belgium. The facility’s first shipment of IOLs made entirely in Ireland occurred in March 2006.

Huntington Vice President and General Manager Jim Baden said the complex process has helped unite the two plants and improve both operations. “As we’ve gone through the steps of transferring processes and technology, the Cork employees have asked a lot of great questions,” he said. “They have been really eager to learn something new, which has helped all of us learn. We really think of them as our sister operation. When I travel over there, it’s amazing how much I feel like I’m still in Huntington.”

Although differences between the regulatory environments in the United States and the European Union play a role in the types of lenses that Cork is currently able to produce, the close partnership between the two plants is starting to yield results. “In the last year, it’s really started to pay off,” said Ben Wilson, Huntington’s Senior Director, Engineering. “Cork produced just over 1 million IOLs in 2007, which allowed us to greatly limit the amount of work we had to do on Saturdays. Now, we’re able to run a five-day operation, when that wasn’t previously the case.”

Since that first shipment of Irish-made IOLs rolled off the line two years ago, Alcon has moved to expand the scope of the Cork plant from a back-up facility to a second manufacturing location with double the originally planned capacity. To achieve this, the company has embarked on a major expansion in close proximity to Cork’s existing manufacturing building.

Begun last year, the expansion is occurring in two phases over a two-year period: the construction of a 70,000-square-foot, three-story building on an adjacent property during 2007, followed by an expansion of approximately 40,000 square feet to the existing manufacturing building in 2008.

When both of Alcon’s IOL plants complete their expansion projects in 2011, Richardson says, the company should have ample capacity for IOL production through the year 2017. At that point – providing the product demand meets current projections – the process of expansion will begin anew.

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