Micromolding has been around for some 30-odd years, but it's only in the past 10 years or so that it has really soared as an enabling technology in medical manufacturing, says Aaron Johnson, Vice President, Marketing & Customer Strategy, at Accumold (Ankeny, IA). "Demand for this technology has skyrocketed in the last decade," says Johnson, and it is a trend that continues to pick up steam, notably, in medical manufacturing. Recent market reports bear him out.
Currently valued at a little more than $300 million, the micromolding market is expected to hit $763 million by 2020, according to Transparency Market Research. Medical and healthcare applications are the leading segments of micro-injection polymer molding, accounting for 33% of total revenue in 2012, notes another report published by Grand View Research. The continued adoption of micro-sized components for minimally invasive surgical instruments and other medical devices will drive demand over the next six years, write Grand View Research analysts, who project that medical technology will be the fastest growing market for micromolding through 2020, with an estimated CAGR of 15.2%.
It's a good business to be in, and it's only getting better for Accumold, which was founded in 1985 with a focus on the molding of miniature parts. The company serves medical device OEMs as well as the electronics and optics sectors.
In addition to minimally invasive devices, Johnson points to personal diagnostics and point-of-care devices as drivers of growth in the medical segment. "Micromolding is an enabling technology for medical advances that help reduce patient recovery times, enhance diagnostic procedures, and improve healthcare delivery," he says. "You often hear people talk about the surgery their mother had done 20 years ago and what an ordeal it was. Today, that surgery is performed through a 3-cm incision that is glued shut, and you're done."
While size matters in defining micromolding, it's not the whole story, says Johnson. The technology typically involves plastic molded parts smaller than one cubic centimeter, he explains, but the process involves complexity and precision beyond mere part size. "Tolerances of ±25 micrometers or less and challenging features such as thin walls, long aspect ratios, and small-diameter holes" are part of the equation, says Johnson. Typically, the demands are such that conventional molding techniques cannot produce these parts. "Tooling and shot sizes must be appropriate, as well" adds Johnson.
Polymers commonly used for microinjection molding include polyether ether ketone (PEEK), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), polyethylene (PE), polyoxymethylene (POM), liquid crystal polymer (LCP), and nylons. Thermoplastics are the most widely used polymers for microinjection molding and accounted for more than 65% of market revenue in 2012, according to Grand View Research.