Implant firm makes great leap into China

Dale Burbeary, coating operative at JRI Orthopaedics takes the implants out of the vacuum.
Dale Burbeary, coating operative at JRI Orthopaedics takes the implants out of the vacuum.
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JRI makes stainless steel products you really wouldn’t want to go wrong - artificial joints.

A new hip can last a lifetime, but even a small scratch can lead to ‘micro-movement’ and eventually failure.

Jerry Agass, joint managing director at JRI Orthopaedics with a hip replacement implant.

Jerry Agass, joint managing director at JRI Orthopaedics with a hip replacement implant.

That’s why, as well as million of pounds of hi-tech equipment, polishing by hand to a mirror finish still plays a vital role in production.

It was a combination of pioneering products and world class skills that attracted one of China’s biggest implant manufacturers.

Last month, AK Medical bought JRI Orthopaedics in Chapeltown for £16.7m.

The Beijing-based firm is promising “significant investment” as it trades on ‘Made in Sheffield’ prestige, while its expertise in 3D printing will be a major boost for its new acquisition.

But it has no plans to interfere with the golden goose. JRI will continue as an autonomous business, according to joint managing director Jerry Agass.

He added: “I think this is such an exciting time for us. We have got an opportunity to really build on what we had, we must take it.

“That someone else sees our potential really gives us confidence - it’s up to us now.”

The firm already has plans to add six to its 105-strong workforce and move to shift working.

Frank Smallpiece, finisher at JRI Orthopaedics polishes an implant.

Frank Smallpiece, finisher at JRI Orthopaedics polishes an implant.

Founded in 1970 by orthopaedic surgeon Ronald Furlong, JRI was the first to produce hip implants with hydroxyapatite coating - a synthetic bone made to a secret recipe - enabling a ‘biological bond’ with the patient and the prospect of a hip for life.

Mr Furlong set up in Sheffield due to its skills with stainless steel - the firm’s raw materials are still made in the city - and its polishing skills, Mr Agass said.

Today, some 50 per cent of £14.5m annual sales are in the UK. Spain and China are another 20 per cent each, with implants also going to Norway, Germany and Australia.

It was the company’s first foray into Asia six years ago that began a long march to China.

Ian Ellison, process support engineer at JRI Orthopaedics.

Ian Ellison, process support engineer at JRI Orthopaedics.

Mr Agass added: “We went over looking for instrument suppliers. We thought the market for implants had already taken off. But after talking to orthopaedic companies we realised there were still opportunities. Now, China will become a very large percentage of our business.”

But it took £750,000, multiple trips and three years to obtain approval to sell there.

At the same time, JRI was looking for a distributor, helped by government agency UKTI, and started working with AK in 2014.

“They came over, they saw our facilities and asked if we would manufacture their hip system. We started sub-contract work in 2015 and the income helped pay for the certification of our products in China.”

JRI is now set to use its experiences to expand into Japan, which has its own regulatory regime.

The compnay was owned by charity Orthopaedic Research UK, gift aiding millions to fund work into joint disease. But that business model had “run its course”, Mr Agass said.

Seven-axis machining centres at JRI Orthopaedics.

Seven-axis machining centres at JRI Orthopaedics.

“The NHS is putting price pressure on products and the increasing cost of regulatory work meant the amount we could gift aid was becoming less. The sale will keep them going for 20 years and they can have much more impact.”

Inside the factory, seven-axis machining centres perform multiple milling tasks. The firm also boasts a vacuum plasma spray system which applies the hydroxyapatite coating and looks like a deep sea submersible.

SHEFFIELD-MADE HIPS ARE A BEST SELLER FOR BEIJING BASED MANUFACTURER

Made in Sheffield membership played a part in a deal which has seen JRI Orthopaedics snapped up by a Chinese firm for £16.7m.

Boss Jerry Agass says the prestige that comes with the licence impressed purchasers AK Medical when they first started working together in 2015. And it still helps with sales today.

Chinese-designed implants made by JRI in Sheffield are among AK’s best sellers back home.

He added: “Made in Sheffield helps promote and market Sheffield as a leading industrial centre.”

China is developing fast and AK is a leader in 3D printed parts, but the country is still earning a name, he added.

Josh Lunn, apprentice machinist at JRI Orthopaedics.

Josh Lunn, apprentice machinist at JRI Orthopaedics.

Jamie Lindley, CNC machinist measures an implant cup.

Jamie Lindley, CNC machinist measures an implant cup.

Craig Hartley, finisher at JRI Orthopaedics polishes an implant.

Craig Hartley, finisher at JRI Orthopaedics polishes an implant.

David Gregory, coating operative/inspector with the vacuum plasma spray system.

David Gregory, coating operative/inspector with the vacuum plasma spray system.