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Adding Device Packaging Simulation Testing to Better Achieve Sustainability

Image courtesy of Wavebreakmedia Ltd FUS5 / Alamy Stock Photo IMG_2022-10-6-162447.jpg
As the focus on sustainability increases across the medical device and pharmaceutical industries, finding a way to minimize the waste stream and its resulting environmental and climate impact is becoming a top priority.

Plastic is a vital material for modern healthcare applications because of its versatility. Its uses have continued to evolve along with this dynamic industry. However, this can present some environmental concerns from certain perspectives, particularly when it comes to single-use plastic. Per the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC), in 2020, over 32 billion pounds (14.5 million tonnes) of healthcare plastics were produced globally -- the majority of which is being disposed of in landfills or by incineration despite most of it being uncontaminated and recyclable – and that number is expected to grow to 48 billion pounds by 2025. As the focus on sustainability rightfully continues to increase across the medical device and pharmaceutical industries, finding a way to minimize the waste stream and its resulting environmental and climate impact is becoming a top priority. As corporate “reduce, recycle, re-use, recover” goals cascade through their business activities and resource investments, many OEMs recognize reaching their sustainability objectives must include close support from their supply chain partners. 

Today’s OEMs are rightfully expecting their partners to participate in environmentally responsible practices. New regulatory requirements are coming out that require healthcare providers to include sustainability as criterion in selecting a supplier, and sustainability questionnaires are increasingly becoming a requirement for OEMs to bid into hospital environments. Packaging, which is a key part of the supply chain and critical to protecting and delivering the product to its point of use, has been expressly called out as a driver of future sustainability gains. There is a significant opportunity to reduce waste through increased healthcare packaging design innovation, and process and material optimization.

With more and more customers looking into enhancing the sustainability of packaging options and including more recyclable packaging components, medical device packaging manufacturers are increasing the emphasis they place on the sustainability of their products and operations. Greater sustainability and waste reduction can be best achieved by optimizing packaging design – which can reduce material usage, as well as improve packaging functionality and allow for better product protection during sterilization, shipping, transport, and storage. Packaging manufacturers may look to reduce packaging, eliminate unnecessary components, streamline shipments whenever possible, and some are even working with end-user hospitals to increase education around proper recycling and reuse. 

At the individual pack level, routes to reducing the product footprint include optimizing form factor (size, weight), material chemistry, recycled content, and recyclability – all of which can have an overall impact. The balance lies between the degree of improvement targeted and the specifier’s views on the acceptable complexity of change, interpretation of regulations, level of required impact, and, in some cases, the country or healthcare situation that the product will be used in.

Informed changes to packaging should be made with quantified, meaningful impacts in mind, while still maintaining engineering safety margins and ensuring the product functions as intended. Packaging manufacturers need to make the change and deliver the impacts at a pace matching OEMs’ corporate commitments – in one example, aiming for a 25% packaging waste reduction by 2025, which is a pace of change greater than previously seen. 

A commonly used approach to accelerate and de-risk change, and to allow wider evaluation at an early stage in the packaging design process, is the use of in silico simulation. This involves virtually modeling potential performance and outputting a narrow list of high-probability-of-success options for in vitro evaluation through classical physical trials. 

Simulation analysis has been adapted to meet the challenges of thermoformed healthcare plastics, presenting stakeholders with intellectual data to clearly verify, communicate and understand the complex information required to select valuable solutions efficiently. Simulation can give packaging engineers and their medical device OEM customers valuable information about the performance of a package design early in the process without investing in the creation of physical samples for experimenting/testing. This type of simulation testing can now be applied to designing for sustainability. By identifying critical to quality attributes (CTQ) early and driving more optimal designs, simulation reduces unnecessary product components and raw materials usage, and longer-term prevents unnecessary manufacturing and transit-related defects of packaging systems.

Simulation techniques can replace physical design screening with virtual evaluation. This uses finite element analysis to model the physical dimension of characterized materials transforming these “digital twins” on rendered molds to final pack formats. In-silico evaluation allows the impact of small to gross changes in the form factor, mold design, materials thickness, and even alternative materials to be evaluated. As a virtual process, constraints of machine time, tool production, and availability are bypassed. The output derived from a simulation is highly quantified.   

Simulation can, for example, be used to optimize lightweighting by modeling the thickness of every finite element across the forming, as well as identifying any failure points. This can reduce a product’s greenhouse gas footprint, including waste, logistics emissions, and energy used in manufacturing. Minimum material-to-pass safety thresholds can be extrapolated to give optimized design decisions, backed quantitatively to support or evidence changes. Identification of failure points enables in silico re-designs of the mold rendering, evaluating mold changes that could enable ultimate lightweighting.  

 Conclusion 

Good product design supports enhanced sustainability by minimizing the amount of waste that ends up in landfills or incinerators and reduces the environmental impacts caused by producing virgin plastics. In a literature review conducted by HPRC, Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) “studies comparing recycling to other disposal methods concluded that recycling had a lower environmental impact than landfill or incineration with energy recovery, particularly due to the benefits of avoiding virgin plastic production.”

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