What will be the fastest growing medical device technologies in the next five or so years? The growth in U.S. gross domestic product is hovering between 2-3%, while the general consensus is that demand for medical plastics will grow at double or more that rate. Meanwhile, some medical device technologies--which use plastics in one way or another could grow 10% or more a year.
Here's a quick look at what those high-growth areas may be with an indication of plastics' involvement:
Lab-on-a-chip. This is a microfluidics device that integrates laboratory functions on a single chip of only millimeters in size. This could be a big opportunity for injection molded biodegradable chips made from polylactic-co-glycolic acid (PLGA).
Home care/mobility. There is a major effort to move medical care out of hospitals to save costs, make care easier for patients, and avoid potentially fatal hospital-borne infections. The winners here are structural plastics such as polycarbonate and blends with ABS. Other styrenic plastics also have significant potential.
Telemedicine. Integration of electronics with plastics will accelerate as care-givers in hospitals want to remotely monitor patients. Some hospitals are even setting up remote monitoring stations as a way to monitor consistency of care throughout their system. A process called laser direct structuring (LDS) developed by LPKF is dramatically increasing integration of printed circuits directly into 3-D molded parts for mobile devices. Several plastics (BASF, Lanxess, Evonik, Ticona) have been specially developed for the process. One player to watch is Molex, a huge captive molder in the electronics space, is rapidly ramping up medical capabilities.
Minimally invasive surgery. Efforts to make surgeries safer are driving devices smaller, putting more emphasis on tight tolerance injection molding of engineering plastics as well as increased demand for metal injection molded cutting elements. Phillips-Medisize recently expanded its MIM capacity for these types of applications.
Bioresorbable implants. Coronary stents made from disappearing plastics (such as those made from lactic acid) are on the verge of becoming major players, displacing much of the metal stent business. This is a very custom business with proprietary knowhow in plastics chemistry and in molding the highly sensitive polymers. One example of the processors emerging in this business is TESco Associates (Tyngsborough, MA).
Diagnostic imaging. Machines that perform nuclear imaging, interventional radiology, capsule endoscopy and other functions will consume large amounts of polycarbonate and polycarbonate blends.
Drug delivery systems. These include needle free injections, and transdermal systems. A new low-cost option to stop needle-stick injuries made of acetal copolymer was shown at K2013 in Düsseldorf, Germany last month.
3D-printed implants. There is significant potential to make custom implants through the additive manufacturing process. Some work is already being done in cranial implants. Medical-grade PEEK is an important player, but high costs are an issue. Machining of stock shapes will continue as an important option for spinal implants.
The list could go on, but these are the big trends that I see affecting medical plastics.
Photo credit: Messe Düsseldorf