SPECIAL FEATURE: GREEN MANUFACTURING
Plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition serves as a green alternative to bonding or overmolding metal parts.
In the not-too-distant past, activists rallied against major corporations for their flagrant disregard for the environment in terms of waste output, harmful materials, and pollution-causing processes. But the tide has turned so that the companies and trades formerly viewed as the most heinous ecological offenders are now spearheading efforts for reducing industry's carbon footprint.
'Green' thinking has struck a chord within the collective general conscience. In turn, industry has jumped on the alternative-fuel-powered bandwagon and is making a concerted effort to reform operations and rethink materials to appease the blossoming eco-friendly mind-set. The medical manufacturing industry is no exception.
Whether motivated by genuine concern for the environment or simply bowing to peer pressure, many medical OEMs have announced their commitment to sustainable manufacturing. Consequently, many suppliers have followed suit. And while suppliers in some market segments have long been advocates of sustainable manufacturing, the rest are sure to follow in due time as the entire industry heads toward a green makeover.
Developing Eco-Friendly Processes
Kermit the Frog said it best: "It's not easy being green." This is especially true for those in manufacturing--an industry that often relies on chemicals and processes that produce pollutants. In fact, the mere idea of overhauling operations to accommodate the environment probably makes some suppliers turn several shades of green just thinking about it.
But the reality is that the green movement is likely only going to grow in both support and influence. Many manufacturers have long been proponents of recycling. However, widespread sustainable manufacturing processes are the next step in the journey to a greener industry.
One company capitalizing on the sustainable manufacturing trend is Plasmatech Inc. (Erlanger, KY; www.plasmatechnology.com). The firm specializes in plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition (PECVD) technology for surface engineering. During the PECVD process, polymerizable gases react with themselves and the polymer or metal substrate to form a coating. However, rather than just modifying the surface, the technology can essentially create a new surface, according to company president Gerhard Winter.
Unlike other coating processes, PECVD allows thin films to be deposited directly onto a plasma-cleaned surface without exposure to the atmosphere and does not require drying or curing. Uses include precision cleaning, priming, and coating an interface layer onto surgical handles prior to overmolding them with silicone rubber, for example.
In addition to having some benefits over conventional coating and conversion processes, PECVD serves as a green alternative to bonding or overmolding metal parts. "The gases or liquids that we utilize are nontoxic, as are the gases that are produced during the manufacturing process," Winter affirms.
Greening the Source
Although it provides plastic medical packaging (above), PI employs many green practices to reduce its carbon footprint.
Plastic is vital to the medical manufacturing industry. Unfortunately, most plastics are far from being classified as environmentally friendly. But as the green movement expands, suppliers are striving to find eco-friendly solutions and alternatives to minimize or eliminate the impact of plastics.
Two notable men who serve the medical device industry recently demonstrated their commitment to green plastics by donating $1 million each to their alma mater, UMass Lowell (www.uml.edu), which is renowned for its materials science department. The contributions from the two benefactors--Mark Saab, president of Advanced Polymers Inc. (Salem, NH; www.advpoly.com), a manufacturer of heat-shrink tubing, angioplasty balloons, and balloon catheters, and Jim Dandeneau, a member on the board of directors for Memry Corp. (Bethel, CT; www.memry.com), a processor of shape-memory materials--will fund two professorships for teaching and research that focus on green plastics.
Green plastics could evolve into a hot commodity in the industry as time progresses and research, such as the kind being done at UMass Lowell, reveals environmentally friendly new materials. A report by BCC Research speculates that the global market for biodegradable polymers could even double by 2012.
While many companies are focusing on recycled plastics, one five-year-old firm has developed an entirely new environmentally friendly product. Heralding its product as the only one of its kind, Bio-Tec Environmental LLC (Albuquerque; www.bio-tec.biz) has created a biodegradable master-batch pellet. Dubbed Bio-Batch GreenWave Technology, the additive is engineered to attract microbes. When an end product is placed in an active microbial environment--such as a landfill--it is neutralized and metabolized by the acids secreted by the microorganisms as they converge on the plastic. As a result, products degrade into humus, biogas, or CO2 over the course of one to 20 years, depending on the application. "This is a nonhazardous, all-organic product that makes microbes attracted to the breakdown of the polymer structure," says Sam Adams, Bio-Tec vice president.
The breakdown of the additive-infused polymer by microbes is an unprecedented development, according to Adams. He points out that most materials labeling themselves as biodegradable plastics use catalysts and are broken down by such factors as light, heat, mechanical stress, and moisture, which can take a long time. Unlike many competing products, Bio-Batch also boasts an indefinite shelf life until placed in the active microbial environment.
Combining 1-5% by load weight of the additive with plastic yields a fully biodegradable product without altering the original plastic's physical properties, according to the company. Moreover, it can be used with most major plastics, including polyethylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polypropylene, polystyrene, and PVC.
Although the product has not yet been incorporated into a medical product, Bio-Tec has identified the medical market as a viable target and has recently been approached by companies in the industry. Adams muses that, because of its compatibility with most plastics coupled with its unobtrusive presence, the potential for medical applications is seemingly infinite. Products such as polypropylene IV bags, syringes, forceps, and even nonsterile medical packaging could incorporate the additive.
Pushing the Green Envelope
Recycled polyethylene terephthalate clamshells from Placon can be used for secondary nonsterile medical packaging.
While many suppliers are adopting sustainable practices, packaging companies seem to be at the forefront of the green movement. Medical packaging providers are taking advantage of the emerging green materials--and the positive response they've received--and are offering sustainable packaging solutions in addition to making a concerted effort to reduce the industry's carbon footprint.
In fact, some people might view thermoformed packaging provider Plastic Ingenuity Inc. (PI; Cross Plains, WI; www.plasticingenuity.com) as the paragon of sustainable manufacturing. The declaration, "We will be ever mindful of our natural environment," in the company's mission statement has laid the foundation for PI's commitment to sustainable practices. Preaching sustainability since before it was trendy, the company has taken this eco-friendly edict to heart dating back to 1972.
Located within 100 feet of a trout stream, the company has gone so far as to develop rain gardens to try to prevent storm water runoff from entering the stream and altering the sensitive habitat. In the parking lot sit new cars for some sales team members that get a minimum of 30 mpg in adherence with a company-wide mandate. And 50 200-W photovoltaic solar panels line the roof of Plastic Ingenuity's manufacturing facility.
Inside the facility, the company has implemented green processes in all facets of its operations. In addition to energy-saving lighting, the plant has instituted a heat reclamation process by which heat produced via thermoforming operations is captured and used to heat the warehouse during the winter. The company also installed a closed-loop cooling tower from which it draws water to cool the molds inside the thermoformer; after use, the water is recycled in-house through this system. Moreover, Plastic Ingenuity boasts a comprehensive recycling and reuse program. The company points out its recycling of plastic scrap benefits not only the environment, but customers as well.
"The ability to coextrude multiple-layer plastic sheets has allowed our customers in noncritical packaging markets to sandwich recycled process scrap between two layers of virgin plastic," says Jason Crosby, medical business manager for PI. "This results in a 50% reduction in virgin plastic usage, while providing a package that has virgin material on all product contact surfaces."
Amid its ambitious pursuit of sustainable practices, PI is still searching for greener plastics to use for its packaging. After all, as Crosby notes, despite all of the company's efforts to green its facility and processes, the end product manufactured remains plastic packaging. However, the quest for high-quality green plastics is bound to take some time.
"Sustainable packaging, or bioplastics, is a relatively new technology and, in most cases, is in the early stages of development," Crosby says. "As a result, obtaining new bioplastic resin that has repeatable properties stable enough for a manufacturer to create process controls can be difficult, all while the world is craving this new creation." Crosby adds that, while bioplastics are improving, many current examples cannot compare with the clarity, heat deflection, and impact strength offered by traditional petroleum-based plastics.
Not content with waiting for the perfect bioplastic, PI is taking matters into its own hands. The firm is exploring options such as using polylactic acid (PLA) as a source material and employing a pulp-thermoforming process for some applications. Although the company has not yet used either for medical applications, Crosby speculates that they could potentially be used in trays or nonsterile medical packaging.
Like Plastic Ingenuity, thermoformed packaging provider Placon (Madison, WI; www.placon.com) is also a Wisconsin-based green bellwether. The company has been incorporating recycled polyethylene terephthalate (RPET) into its packaging solutions for more than 15 years.
"RPET provides great clarity and the high impact strength needed to protect the product while helping to keep waste out of landfills," says Lauren Foos, Placon national accounts manager. "In medical applications, RPET works great as secondary nonsterile packaging clamshells for ampules or vial packs, where the primary container provides sterility."
The company can tint or add a UV inhibitor to the eco-friendly material. Furthermore, RPET provides benefits not in only in its reduced environmental impact, but in its cost-effectiveness compared with PETE and PETG, according to Placon.
Sustainability is the mantra for the company's processes as well as for its packaging products. Placon employs a closed-loop system for RPET and PETE whereby they are recycled and reused in a new extruded material. "Any scrap materials that cannot be reextruded in-house are separated and ground in a sophisticated line so the material doesn't end up back in the landfill," Foos says.
From recycled plastic packaging to emerging biodegradable materials and sustainable operations, savvy suppliers are initiating sweeping change in order to minimize their respective carbon footprints. Now it's up to the rest of the suppliers to follow in their shrinking footsteps.