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Still considered recession-proof, this market is all about automation and accountability.

5 Min Read
Market Snapshot: Medical disposables

Still considered recession-proof, this market is all about automation and accountability.


The Clear-Trac Complete cannula system from Smith & Nephew Endoscopy is used in arthroscopic surgery and includes nine sizes, each tinted a different color. The OEM chose a copolyester (Eastman Eastar) for its color stability and clarity even after gamma sterilization.

Injection molded plastics couldn’t be more suited to the medical disposables market. They bring not only cost efficiency and ease of processing in large volumes, but also a host of performance benefits ranging from biocompatibility and clarity to chemical resistance and sterilizability.

For this and other reasons, the outlook on IM plastics in this market remains sunny. According to Freedonia Group (Cleveland, OH), the value of plastic resins consumed in disposable medical supplies should rise 4.1% yearly, reaching $2.6 billion in 2011. If actual growth meets the prediction, it will mean consumption of about 1.4 billion pounds of resin.

Plastics retain a leading position among all raw materials in disposable medical supplies, and the reasons, Freedonia says, include ongoing innovations and improvements in polymer compounds. Such advances have made it possible to meet performance criteria while upping quality and reducing cost.

IM plastic applications consist in part of hypodermic syringe cartridges, medical kits and trays, and labware. Predictions from Freedonia are that improvements and refinements in materials will increase the types of disposable medical supplies created in commodity and engineered resins.

Market dynamics

According to Ken Breeding, technology platform manager, Eastman Specialty Plastics (Kingsport, TN), “Single use disposables, as opposed to those that may be used and sterilized several times before disposal, are an especially hot commodity right now.”

PVC and PP will continue to dominate the medical disposables market through 2016, according to Freedonia Group, while demand for LDPE and TPE materials will grow at a faster rate than other materials.

The market currently favors ongoing innovation focused on safety and cost, and both carry a lot of weight, Breeding explains. “There is a trend toward disposables because they aid in cutting costs and reduce the need to sterilize, but safety is the biggest reason for the switch,” he says. “Needle protection is key right now as a means of controlling the spread of disease, which is an issue among healthcare providers.”

Microfluidics, an emerging technology, is also a hot topic within this market. It involves the precise control and manipulation of fluids that are forced by geometry into sub-millimeter channels. OEMs are now developing microfluidic devices for drug discovery and diagnostics.

In the diagnostic world, instead of using a large quantity of blood, lab techs could use a microfluidic device with a drop of blood to test for cholesterol, blood sugar, potassium, and more. These devices may also produce results quicker, because there is no need to wait for a lab. “This will shorten the time frame for analysis so that doctors can make quicker decisions,” Breeding says. “Micromolding and laser engraving are two of the methods for creating the microchannel; laser welding is typically used to seal the two substrates.”

Medical OEM Datamed reduced overall manufacturing costs of its BLOP4 probe by adding a disposable plastic cuvette, made with copolyester (Eastman Eastar), which snaps conveniently into the device.

While this represents an opportunity for medical molders, there are also challenges. Molders need to find a way to control internal costs. Material prices are on the increase due to oil prices, so to protect margins, molders need to find a way to improve efficiency internally via productivity improvements and perhaps a focus on high volume products. Disposables are price sensitive, so overhead reduction and automation are a big part of staying competitive.

Future opportunities

Disposables may not be limited to blood care products such as stopcocks, luers, and syringes in the near future, according to Clare Frissora, market director of healthcare for Sabic Innovative Plastics (Pittsfield, MA). “There is a growing interest in disposable components for surgical instruments as well,” she says.

Rather than dispose of the entire device, OEMs now are investigating how to design instruments with dual components, one to be disposed of and the other reusable portion to be cleaned and sterilized.

New polymer grades meet changing medical market needs. When Unimax Medical Systems switched to post-packaging gamma sterilization for its single-use laparoscopic devices, designers chose a high flow polycarbonate (Sabic IP Lexan HPS) designed for use in this environment to ensure product safety and efficacy.

Frissora also notes a trend toward more concern about cleaner and safer products. “What chemicals are being used, how are they being sterilized, what is the total system cost to clean and/or sterilize? Even disposable devices must be sterilized before use, and OEMs are looking at that aspect.”

The current regulatory environment, both in the U.S. (FDA) and globally, is influencing the selection of materials. “Our OEMs have to respond to the tighter regulations and ask their suppliers for assistance,” she adds. “For biocompatibility testing and assessment of materials, OEMs try to pull from a range of materials that have already been assessed by the material supplier.”

Cost containment is always an issue in healthcare, and disposables are no exception. “If you consider the whole system, you find that lower cost materials aren’t always the ones that produce the lowest part cost. Customers are finding that they have to innovate, and are turning to suppliers to find out how to do that at the lowest system cost.”

Contact information:
Eastman Specialty Plastics | www.eastman.com
Freedonia Group | www.freedoniagroup.com
Sabic Innovative Plastics | www.sabic-ip.com

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