Plastics save lives. Pure and simple. What often gets lost
in the demonization of plastics due to their waste-related
challenges is the fact that modern healthcare is heavily
reliant on the material and, in fact, could barely function
without it. Even those detractors who long have argued
against the use of PVC, or vinyl, in various healthcare
applications due to concerns over the material’s use of
phthalates, have failed to deter the healthcare sector’s use
of PVC for one simple reason – there is no alternative that
can cost-effectively deliver the same level of performance.
It is simply the best material for the job.
Similarly, while efforts continue to find ways to reduce
plastics-related waste by increasing the reusability and
sterilization of various medical items, the cost/benefit/safety
analysis of using plastics in numerous healthcare
applications makes it tough to beat.
Last October, National Geographic magazine ran a story
titled “Can Medical Care Exist Without Plastic?”, and noted
that “Single-use plastic can be an attractive option for
hospitals – cheap, durable, and easily tossed out – and each
new fresh plastic container or covering offers a newly
sterile environment. That’s why clinicians cover themselves
and everything they use in plastic.”
Various types of plastics and elastomeric materials serve
countless uses in the medical and healthcare arena – from
basic items such as gloves, tubing, eyeglasses, blood bags
and disposable syringes, to high-tech, biocompatible
applications such as heart valves, joint replacements and
3D-printed prosthetic limbs.
Ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE), for
example, is excellent for use in prosthetics, while
polypropylene’s high-heat properties make it ideal for
applications where autoclave sterilization and radiation
stabilization processes are required, according to global
materials supplier Trinseo (formerly known as Styron).
Various forms of chemical-resistant plastics also play a key
role in combatting so-called “hospital-acquired infections,”
or HAIs, which kill tens of thousands of patients every year.
Lightweight, durable polymers are often the material of
choice for the fast-growing application of “wearable”
devices used as fitness trackers and health monitors.
Sterile plastic packaging, meanwhile, helps to keep vital
medical components and devices safe and protected.
And none of these account for the overwhelming use of
plastics in medical equipment, ranging from MRI scanners and
dialysis machines to hospital beds and sophisticated test
Companies such as Jabil-owned Nypro Healthcare also delve
deeply into the engineering aspects of medical devices.
Nypro focuses heavily on mechatronics, a design process that
involves integrating mechanical and electrical hardware with
software processes, thereby enabling device designers to
deliver highly sophisticated mechatronic functionality.
“One of the major healthcare trends affecting mechatronics
technology is miniaturization,” notes Nypro. “Ever-smaller
instruments, devices, and equipment are being developed to
enable less-invasive surgical techniques that enable faster
recovery.” The use of micro-actuators and micro-sensors is
driving the development of tiny mechatronics designs for
everything from scientific instruments for DNA sequencing to
micro-pumps and auto-injectors for drug-delivery products.
Additive manufacturing also is playing an increasing role in
healthcare delivery. Germany’s Evonik Industries AG, for
instance, recently invested in Meditool, a Chinese 3D
printing start-up specialized in implants for neuro and
spinal surgeries. Using 3D models generated by Meditool’s
own software, Evonik can print implants using its
high-performance polyetheretherketone (PEEK) polymers.
Other materials suppliers are striving to make plastics more
resistant to the harsh cleaning chemicals often encountered
in hospitals and operating rooms. Minnesota-based compounder
RTP Company has developed a proprietary alloy technology
designed to maintain strength, functionality, and integrity,
even with repeated exposure to hospital cleaners used to
disinfect medical devices. The firm says these thermoplastic
compounds, known as the RTP 2000 HC series, “can help solve
cracking issues in existing devices and open a new realm of
possibilities for the design of hospital equipment and
plastic housings that require frequent disinfection, such as
mobile ultrasound and x-ray machines, enteral feeding
devices, drug infusion pumps, blood filtration equipment,
RTP also supplied a glass fiber-reinforced PC/ABS alloy
compound known as the RTP 2500 Series, to Novare Surgical
Systems to use in its RealHand line of minimally invasive
surgical instruments. Novare has integrated its RealHand HD
technology into a series of endo-laparoscopic instruments
such as graspers, dissectors, scissors, and needle drivers.
Kraiburg TPE, meanwhile, recently launched a new line of
thermoplastic elastomers that not only hold certifications
for healthcare applications in accordance with European
Union and U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards but
can also be combined directly with polyamides. Dubbed the
MC/AD/PA Thermolast M series, Kraiburg says it is now
introducing “the world’s first TPEs for medical applications
in composites with polyamides – including transparent PA12.”
The compounds are fully certified and suitable for a variety
of attractive medical devices, including those used for in
PolyOne Corp. also supplies a number of materials for use in
healthcare applications, including for catheters and tubing,
and various medical devices. Recently, though, it tackled a
slightly different challenge – helping a nonprofit charity
called Global Vision 2020 to create a simple, effective way
to bring clear eyesight to people living in extreme poverty.
The resulting diagnostic device, called USee™, allows
minimally trained practitioners in the field to accurately
test the eyesight of people in impoverished areas. PolyOne’s
IQ Design unit helped design the device and provided the
medical-grade polycarbonate for the rectangular lenses used
to help diagnose the patient’s prescription vision needs.
Another materials firm, Germany’s Covestro, worked closely
with Ohio-based medical equipment maker Enable Injections to
create a new, on-body drug-delivery system to help patients
who need biologic drugs derived from organic sources to
treat cancer, diabetes and other diseases.
Biologics need to be injected or infused. Typically, this
has required inconvenient visits to specialty healthcare
facilities or painful self-injections of high-viscosity
medications. Now, patients can wear this Enable device and
easily self-administer the doses they need, when they need
them. The new system – made with Covestro’s Makrolon® Rx1805
polycarbonate in a purple tint, and its Bayblend® M850 XF
PC/ABS blend – provides the necessary safety, durability and
bio-compatibility while being aesthetically pleasing.
And nowhere is plastics more prevalent in healthcare than in
packaging. Most drugs are dispensed in some sort of plastic
bottle, container or foil-backed blister pack, and packagers
increasingly are adding “smart” technologies to such
products to improve safety while also helping users to keep
track of the medications they are taking.
Austrian packaging group Alpla, for example, recently
introduced CRC justONE, a very light, childproof closure,
manufactured in just a single injection molding process with
straightforward assembly. Normally, there are three parts to
a childproof closure with a tamper-evident band that can
only be opened by simultaneously pushing and turning the
closure. And these parts typically are produced in three
separate production steps and assembled later. This new
production process from ALPLApharma, Alpla’s newly
consolidated healthcare brand, has now streamlined this into
a significantly more efficient workflow.
National Geographic asked the right question recently. And,
in short, the current answer is, “No, safe, efficient
medical care today cannot exist without plastic.”
Come to CHINAPLAS 2020 in Shanghai this April 21-24 to see
first-hand some of the amazing technologies that are helping
to enable modern medicine. For more information about
CHINAPLAS 2020, please visit the official show website at
CHINAPLAS 2020 is organized by Adsale Exhibition Services
Ltd., Beijing Yazhan Exhibition Services Ltd., and Adsale
Exhibition Services (Shanghai) Ltd. and co-organized by
China National Light Industry Council - China Plastics
Processing Industry Association, China Plastics Machinery
Industry Association, The Plastic Trade Association of
Shanghai, Messe Düsseldorf China Ltd. The event is also
supported by various plastics and rubber associations in
China and abroad. First introduced in 1983, CHINAPLAS has
been approved by UFI (The Global Association of the
Exhibition Industry) since 2006. CHINAPLAS is exclusively
sponsored by the Europe's Association for Plastics and
Rubber Machinery Manufacturers (EUROMAP) in China for the
31st time. CHINAPLAS is currently Asia's leading plastics
and rubber trade fair.