It seems that major announcements are made almost weekly of a company's or organization's increased commitment to the medical plastics field. Most recently, BASF announced new investments in its Tarrytown, NY R&D center, new grades, and new production capability.
The Conference Board is predicting an anemic 1.1% growth rate in the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) next year, and a not-much-better 2.1% in 2013. "The recent deterioration in CEO confidence levels, along with moribund consumer confidence, does not bode well for a pickup in business investment while consumer demand remains very weak," says Bart van Ark, chief economist of The Conference Board.
In contrast, a recent report from BCC Research forecasts a 4.9% compound annual growth rate for medical plastics in the United States from 2000 through 2015. And that's in pounds, not dollars.
Behind this forecast is an underlying growth in health care in the U.S. One reason is expanded government services. Another is increased care spurred by phenomenal success rates in successfully treating many major diseases. Another is the aging of the baby boomer generation.
On top of that, several trends point to increasing penetration of plastics in healthcare applications.
- There is an increasing use of disposable medical products;
- Increasing demand for bacteria-fighting surfaces is triggering a wave of new antimicrobial technology;
- Many plastic companies that once eschewed implantable applications because of potential liability issues are now embracing the potential of the technology;
- New biocompatible and bioresorbable polymers are being developed-almost weekly;
- There is growing interest in new technologies for environmental reasons, for example, replacement of lead with new polymer compounds and development of new plasticizers, and
- Medical device design engineers are becoming more aware of the capabilities of plastic technologies.
And there's a good reason why design engineers are growing more interested in plastics. And that reason is the growing sophistication and prowess of American molders and mold builders. There are a thousand examples.
One is the development of micro-molded parts in response to the demand for tiny parts used in instruments for minimally invasive surgery. MTD Micro Molding (Charlton, MA) is molding parts with thicknesses under 0.040 inch at the widest point. Wall thicknesses can be under 0.001-inch. CEO Dennis Tully said he doesn't know what the size limit is for a molded part. The company's soaring growth recently earned recognition from a leading business magazine.
Another example is the ability to deliver very close tolerance insert molded parts. Plas-Tech Engineering (Lake Geneva, WI) insert molded two 13-gauge stainless steel tubes for a newly developed, software-driven dual-channel needle guide used to improve the accuracy of screening for prostate cancer. The device OEM is Envisioneering Medical Technologies (St. Louis, MO). "Insert molding specialists will be in demand for medical applications as the sophistication of medical devices increases," says Mike Belgeri of Envisioneering. "Designers will take advantage of composite materials/assemblies to achieve flexibility and precision. They will also turn to insert molding to simultaneously meet varied challenges and requirements inherent in performing medical procedures."
Advances are also coming in additive manufacturing, from 3D printing of biocompatible materials to selective laser sintering of PEEK implants.
And the materials capabilities are also growing exponentially, with important contributions coming from materials powerhouses such as DuPont, Bayer, Solvay, BASF and SABIC, as well as compounders such as PolyOne and technology startups that are particularly active in the bioresorbables field.
The fact that America is the largest developer of new medical device technology in the world is of course also a big factor.
There is no threat of a double-dip recession in medical plastics. It's all good news for business people, engineers, and patients awaiting important technical advances.