What are the takeaways in emerging medical plastics trends from K2013, the triennial plastics exposition that was held in Düsseldorf, Germany Oct. 16-23? Here are my thoughts:
1. Automation and in-mold integration of functions are the future of medical processing. A tremendous focus on cost improvement has emerged in the medical market in the past three to four years. It's been partly
|Flags fly at K2103. Photo: Messe Düsseldorf|
2. The trend to nonphthalate plasticizers for PVC medical bags and tubing is really heating up in Europe, and the United States is sure to follow. At least three companies introduced nonpthalate plasticizers at K2013, and Eastman is announcing another at Compamed, which will be held in Düsseldorf Nov. 20-22. Even new extrusion equipment was on display for processing nonphthalate-plasticized PVC. One excellent demonstration was conducted by Milacron and Conair.
3. Research efforts to replace flexible PVC altogether for medical bags and tubing are accelerating in Europe, but some do not appear ready yet for prime time. The company making the most noise at the K on this subject was Styrolution, the German-based styrenics JV formed by BASF and Ineos in 2011. Problems remain with thermal stability (for steam sterilization) of stryenics and processing melt strength. Efforts to replace PVC in bags seem more advanced in the U.S. where beefed-up polyolefin elastomers are having success.
4. Strictly my opinion: Polycarbonate and polycarbonate blends are poised for strong growth rates for structural applications for medical equipment and large mobile devices, but applications involving blood contact or steam sterilization are less secure. The issue is potential release of BPA, the building block monomer used to produce PC. Bayer MaterialScience made a strong statement defending the safety of PC at the K, but issues remain, such as resistance to chemicals often used in sterilization.
5. Central Europe will remain a focal point of sophisticated processing technology advances for medical plastics, but the United States is the global front runner on medical device technology development. The overall strength of the American economy, as well as the new federal health law, will help drive demand for medical plastics in the United States well ahead of European demand. The key American strength is the foundation of a well-established, high-quality healthcare system tied into the world's leading research universities and institutions. Another world-leading American strength is the risk-taking entrepreneurial spirit that is a powerful factor in the medical field. Look at all of the spin-offs from MIT in the Boston area for example.