Ninety-nine percent uptime would be a great number for any other manufacturing company to achieve with its products, but at Varian Medical Systems, that number is just not good enough. The company is full of innovators who are all working towards the same mission: to not just fight cancer, but to beat it.
“We try to think of downtime from a patients’ perspective. Let’s say a patient has a brain tumor and they’re being treated on a Varian machine and they have on a cranial fixation device so their face and head are firmly attached to a table and you can’t move,” describes Robert Wood, vice president of worldwide manufacturing. “It’s natural to be nervous because this is a big deal and you are getting X-rays delivered to the brain, and the machine stops working for 10 minutes during the procedure. From an uptime perspective, it’s only 10 minutes in a 24-hour day, but from the patient’s perspective, the patient was uncomfortable, had fear and might be questioning whether this treatment will be effective. While we know the patient was treated correctly, he still was uncomfortable and had a less than desired experience.”
The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company began shortly after World War II when brothers Russell and Sigurd Varian developed a source of strong microwave signals that improved air navigation and warned of potential bombing raids. The klystron tube, a high-frequency amplifier for generating microwaves, can be found today in radar, satellite and wideband high-power communication, high-energy physics applications and as an essential component of the modern medical linear accelerator – a machine that helps clinicians target and destroy tumors using high-energy X-ray beams.
Varian Associates was incorporated in 1948 with $22,000 of capital and six full-time employees. Today, Varian Medical Systems generates more than $3 billion in revenue and has approximately 7,700 employees. “What keeps employees engaged is the universal passion to fight cancer,” Wood says. “It’s a great culture to be a part of and our people know how many lives we can potentially save and how many people get to go home because of our products. I personally know people who wouldn’t have made it without our technology.”
Retaining employees at Varian Medical Systems today is not a challenge because of its unique mission and culture that were established with its founders. “We are one of the first two technology companies in Silicon Valley and with most companies here, five years is a major milestone because of the turnover,” Wood explains. “We are a very unique company to have many employees who have been with us for 35 to 40 years. On a regular basis we try to bring into the factory patients who have been treated on our systems, or care teams who use our systems, to share their stories with our team so every day when an employee picks up a wrench or looks at their computer screen, they have a reminder of how important what we do is.”
Varian Medical Systems is a company that was born to treat cancer. “We are innovators and a company of innovation,” Wood notes. “Our founders were instrumental in [developing] great technology for radar. They found that they could could use the technology to accelerate electrons, produce X-rays, and then made the leap that it could treat cancer.”
An X-ray at the doctor’s office is typically in the 1,000-watt range of power. Varian’s machine allows clinicians to target a specific tumor volume in the mega-watt range. “What happens is the X-rays penetrate and disrupt the DNA of compromised cells,” Wood explains. “Because cancer cells grow voraciously and are compromised, it is self-selecting. The cancer cell will die before a healthy cell. The cancer cells die first and that’s key about what we do.”
The company has been using X-ray technology to treat cancer in patients since the late 1950s. What has changed, Wood explains, is the technology. “We used to treat patients with X-ray using physical shielding and the beam characteristics were very basic,” he adds. “Now we can direct and modulate the beam and its intensity. Its accuracy is sub-millimeter, so if you have a tumor near the spinal cord we can treat the tumor, with minimal to no dose to the spine. We are doing wonderful things now that have changed the way we deliver the beam and minimize the side effects to the patient.
“Our culture of innovation brings challenges to our value stream,” Wood continues. “It seems like we are improving some part of our delivery system every month and that puts pressure on the factories and our suppliers. We’re continually challenging ourselves how to institute these changes in a way that is orderly and effective. Partnering with our suppliers in change control is extremely important. It’s about continuous innovation and focusing on patient safety and effectiveness.”
Conservative and Redundant
Varian’s X-ray technology is an 18,000-pound piece of technology with hundreds of PCBs, microwave and radiation generation, and robotics all integrated. “It’s a fairly complex manufacturing value stream,” Wood notes. “We partner with our suppliers who have very specific capabilities and expectations, and we measure performance from the eyes of the patient.”
To ensure its products are approaching 100 percent uptime, Wood describes Varian as a conservative company that does not take risks. “We are continually striving for perfection because it matters to our patients,” he adds. “That drives a lot of activities and thinking around how we do things. There is redundancy with everything we do to drive safety.”
To ensure its radiation treatment machines are built correctly, Varian hand-selects new employees that have the same level of passion for fighting cancer. New hires are put through an extensive training process.
“In key manufacturing roles, their learning curve is six to eight months of intensive training before they can go and do the task unaided,” Wood says. “We have a very elaborate testing process, new hires are paired with an individual and receive classroom training to demonstrate their proficiencies. We make sure they understand what they are doing and how they can impact the patient. Everything is highly documented, so attention to detail and understanding what it means and how important it is when they sign their name to a document is crucial.”
Varian is motivated to implement change and reduce waste during production to be able take its machines where they have never been before. “This is an expensive machine,” Wood notes. “We are driven to take out waste in our value stream because it gets us into markets we couldn’t get into before. We have a passion for expanding more into Africa, but we need a certain price point and we need a certain cost point and we can’t compromise on the patient side.”
The company values its supplier partners in this effort to find opportunities for savings while keeping its high-quality standard. “We have many suppliers because it’s a complex system,” Wood explains. “We have a large supplier network and the quality we receive is the result of our partnerships and solid specifications. Our suppliers’ employees understand our mission – this is a machine that needs to function to potentially save someone’s life. We make sure we find suppliers who understand that and work with us as part of a team. We think of them as an extension of Varian.”
“At Varian we are never comfortable with where we are,” Wood says. “The mission is driving us. Unfortunately, cancer is an equal opportunity disease and what we are looking at for the future is the unmet need globally.”
Varian will continue to grow and focus on the industrialized markets; for example, the majority of cancer treatment centers in the U.S. have a Varian machine. It is also looking to saturate Africa and other developing areas. “We are passionate about meeting the growing needs in the developing markets,” Wood says. “One life in Africa is just as precious as one in the U.S. We won’t stop innovating until the global need for effective cancer treatment is met.”
The challenge Varian has given itself is to deliver equipment in these emerging markets in a way that changes their trajectory. “That is what’s really driving Varian for the next 20 years,” Wood adds. “We will continue serving the U.S. market and other great markets, but there is a huge unmet market with lots of opportunity that is great on the business side. On the personal side, it matters and we have to get better.”
Innovation in Oncology
Varian Oncology System’s mission is to innovate, support and simplify cancer-fighting solutions everywhere so the company can realize its vision of living in a cancer-free world. “Along with embodying the way we work, this challenge motivates us to keep improving, collaborating and striving to achieve our goal of conquering cancer,” the company says. “Over the last 30 years, we’ve introduced pioneering treatment techniques, equipment and software that have been used to treat tens of thousands of cancer patients worldwide.”
Varian hardware and software technology for radiation treatments is used on a global basis. There are more than 7,200 linear accelerators, 3,300 treatment planning sites and 3,000 ARIA sites in use worldwide. The company continues to innovate and offer products and services that integrate into the complete treatment process so an entire department can come together to treat cancer.