How millions of hearing aids are made inside one of the world’s largest manufacturers

  • Hearing aids can be customized, connect to phones, and translate foreign languages in real time.
  • Starkey is one of the largest hearing-aid manufacturers in the world developing these technologies.
  • We went inside the company’s headquarters in Minnesota to see how the industry is transforming.

Hearing aids can be customized, connect to phones, and translate foreign languages in real time. We went inside one of the largest hearing-aid manufacturers in the world to see how the industry is transforming.

The following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: A squirt of silicone is the start of a hearing aid. The device is designed by machine and finalized by hand. But it’s no longer just used for basic hearing. This customized aid can connect to your phone, isolate voices, and even translate another language in real time.

Paul Neu: Did we take out the garbage tonight?

Employee: Si, claro, Paulo.

Narrator: We visited one of the world’s largest hearing-aid manufacturers to learn more. 38 to 48 million Americans have some degree of hearing loss. That’s about the population of Canada or Spain. Right now, only about 20% of adults in the US who need a hearing aid actually have one. And believe it or not, there’s only one traditional hearing-aid manufacturer that’s US-owned and operated. Starkey was founded in 1967. Since then, it’s produced tens of millions of these devices.

Brandon Sawalich: Starkey has over 5,000 employees. We do business in over 100 countries, and we change people’s lives through better hearing.

Narrator: It’s a big business that begins with the tiniest of measurements. Inside Starkey’s headquarters, a silicone impression of the ear goes through a 3D scanner that captures all of its unique dimensions. The machine prints out an acrylic shell, which holds all of the electronic components. And a special software helps the technician determine how to create the smallest, most comfortable hearing aid for that patient’s ear and prescription. Since the final customized product is assembled by hand, the whole process can take up to four days. For Chef Paul Neu, some of the features of his Starkey hearing aid have been essential for his work in the kitchen.

Paul: I can answer my phone while I’m cutting fish. I don’t have to touch anything. I don’t have to stop what I’m doing to actually talk to people.

Narrator: Chef Paul got his first hearing aids 14 years ago.

Paul: It almost was like you were in a Chuck E. Cheese, where there’s so many lights, bells, whistles going on.

Narrator: But high costs are part of the reason why many adults haven’t gotten them. Right now, a set of hearing aids in the US could cost anywhere from $US700 ($AU998) to $US10,000 ($AU14,254).

Barbara Kelley: So, the device is about one-third of the cost, but then you have the services, which you really need.

Narrator: There are also limited options.

Nicholas Reed: There really only are five major hearing-aid companies in the world, and they’re very highly integrated, in that you might hear many different brand names of hearing aids, but it’s really five companies controlling the whole thing.

Narrator: During the pandemic, the hearing-aid industry saw an unexpected surge.

Nicholas: I think when you have something like universal masking, so many more people realize how much they rely actually on subconscious lip reading.

Narrator: And the industry is also going through another big change. Legislation for over-the-counter hearing aids passed in 2017. Tech companies like Bose and Apple are entering the market. But Starkey points out that these over-the-counter devices will only be for those with mild to moderate hearing loss and that most Americans will still need personalized fittings and expert care. The number of people with hearing loss in the US is expected to nearly double by 2060 as the population of elderly people grows. And studies have shown that when left untreated, it has much more dire consequences on overall health.

Paul: You strain so much in hearing that actually I was physically shaking, and I couldn’t figure out why. And then I got the hearing aids, and then everything just stopped. The stress level to hear was just gone.

Narrator: As the industry opens up, the hope is that any barriers to addressing hearing loss will fall and that these devices will become more accessible for everyone.