Did you ever wonder how custom hearing aids are manufactured? I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it until a recent trip to Phonak’s US headquarters. It was a wonderful visit. I was able to discuss the patient’s perspective with the company’s leadership and audiologists and learn about the work they are doing to improve hearing aid technology.
One of the highlights was touring the company’s 93,000 square foot hearing aid manufacturing facility in Aurora, Illinois. Opened in 2013, the facility employs more than 500 people in varying shifts that allow it to operate 24/7. Here, the company’s custom hearing aids are constructed. The process is a combination of art and science, just like living with hearing loss.
Making a Hearing Aid Takes Art and Science
In my business career, I toured several manufacturing plants in a variety of industries, so I was expecting a loud, mostly automated facility with little room for art in all of the science. I could not have been more wrong. The facility was almost silent, as the employees concentrated on their detailed work across the many stations along the assembly line. Temperature and humidity were carefully controlled to reduce the risk of static electricity, which could wipe out the internal electronic components.
Manufacturing Starts in the Mailroom
The manufacturing process starts in the mail room where the orders for the day arrive. Thousands of packages are delivered each day, most containing ear impressions that will be used to build someone’s new custom hearing aid. Each order receives a computer tracking number and the real work begins.
The impressions are scanned and digitized into 3-D images, which are then used to design the internal workings of the hearing aids. Using computer aided design, each component of the hearing aid is placed in its virtual shell. While many components fit in a standard location, others shift around depending on the nuances of each impression. This is where the art comes in — balancing functionality with practicality to make sure all the features that the hearing aid wearer desires fit into the very small space provided.
When the computer design is finalized, it is sent for printing. The facility contains more than 20 state-of-the-art 3-D printers which produce a large number of molds per batch. You can see the finished shells fresh off the machine in the photos below.
Once cooled, the shells are removed from the base, and they and their internal components are sent to the assembly area. Here, skilled technicians manually construct the hearing aids, often using tweezers and high-powered microscopes since the components are so small. Once the wiring is complete, the hearing aids are sealed, trimmed and buffed by hand. At this point the aids are fully functioning.
Quality Control is A Key Part of the Process
The final step before shipping is quality control. Each hearing aid is programmed and put through a series of tests to make sure it is operating as expected. If functional or cosmetic issues are found, the aids are sent back for retooling. The entire manufacturing process can take several days.
I was impressed with the look and feel of the facility and amazed at the skill of the technicians who are maneuvering so many small and delicate components to create the miracle we call the modern custom fit hearing aid. It was inspiring to see the marriage of art and science applied to creating better hearing for so many people.
If you are interested in learning more about the Aurora Operations Distribution Center (AODC), you can watch the company’s captioned YouTube video describing it here.
Readers, have you ever wondered how custom hearing aids are made?