Medtech Trends and Technologies at MD&M West

Bob Michaels

February 16, 2012

4 Min Read
Medtech Trends and Technologies at MD&M West

From materials and machines to syringes and software, MD&M West has it all. Compared with the shows that took place during the deepest, darkest days of the Great Recession, this year's medtech event to end all medtech events is taking place in the midst of greater, if guarded, optimism.

And as the technological needs of the medical device community change, some companies are finding increasing receptivity among manufacturers to look for new ways to do things. A case in point is Sequence (Knoxville, TN), a provider of manufacturing software solutions that could help manufacturers to get a handle on complex production and assembly processes. Many medical device manufacturers use Word-based software systems for controlling production operations, remarks Jack Hay, the company's vice president, business development. However, such methods  stand in the way of knowledge capture, management, and deployment. "Instead of Word, our system places discrete pieces of information into a database," Hay adds. The system provides completed work instructions that can be viewed online or printed. If a manufacturing step needs to be added or removed, the software can handle the change by automatically updating the instructions. "We've received lots of interest in our software platform from medical device manufacturers at the show," Hay says, "because they're finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with all the manufacturing routines using traditional tools."

Things are hopping on the materials front as well. For example, Plexiglas (Bristol, PA), part of Altuglas International Resin, is striving to develop biomaterials for a range of medical device applications, such as housings for diagnostic equipment. Plexiglas is interested in improving sustainability, notes Carmen Rodriguez, the company's business manager, resin products. "Some companies are trying to reduce their carbon footprint by recycling or selling scrap material to break it down to its original properties." For its parts, Plexiglas is attempting to achieve sustainability by developing biobased materials such as Plexiglas Rnew, an acrylic resin for use in transparent disposable medical devices. Based on a blend with PMMA that incorporates high levels of carbon from renewable resources, the material is used to manufacture transparent disposable medical devices, and, according to the company, offers a "green" alternative to nonrenewable resins. 

"Producing a biopolymer? Therein lies the rub," Rodriguez says. "The goal is to get there, but we're not there yet." The problem with developing true biopolymers, she adds, is using the right precursors to be able to fabricate methyl acrylate, from which you can get to the point of developing true sustainable materials. But until then, biobased Rnew is a step in the right direction, providing a resistant material that can be readily molded and undergo sterilization steps.

We've all read stories about Rust Belt companies from Michigan to Ohio to Pennsylvania that have managed to make the transition from old-fashioned industrial enterprises to modern medical device establishments. Not exactly an old-fashioned industrial firm, Dynomax Inc. (Wheeling, IL) has served the aerospace industry for years, fabricating and assembling components for civilian and military aircraft. In the course of time, however, the company has taken an increasing interest in manufacturing micromolded and micromachined parts for the medical device industry, and that's why it set up shop at MD&M West.

"We've become increasingly interested in the medical device industry, especially now that the defense budget is decreasing," remarks Michelle Gold, Dynomax's sales support coordinator. "And the show's been really good for us."

Seconding that thought, Mark Zic, who is responsible for the company's business development, remarks that many people came by the booth with concrete inquiries about how long it would take for Dynomax to fabricate a variety of custom microcomponents. Things seem to move quickly in the medical device marketplace, Zic adds, noting that in the aerospace industry, it could take 16 month for a client to merely to look at a drawing.

Capable of producing microcomponents with walls as thin as 1/3000 in. for medical device housings, Zic says that it has become increasingly difficult for the company to employ properly trained machinists capable of molding and machining miniature parts with the tight tolerances demanded of many medical device applications. In an effort to remedy this problem, Dynomax engages in educational outreach and offers two-year paid apprenticeships for aspiring machinists. But the technical challenges are great indeed. While the company has a great deal of experience under its belt producing parts for planes, Zic concedes, "micromachining parts for medical devices is a lot harder." --Bob Michaels

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