The medical plastics sector enjoyed monumental growth in 2016 with an upsurge in wearable technology, ultrasound OEMs, thermoplastic elastomers (TPEs), and even polyolefins. Materials and emerging technologies are credited for these gains, so with the new year upon us, let’s look at what we can take away from medical technology trends in the last year.
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Stable, low cost, higher wavelength lasers have eliminated the need for laser sensitive additives normally used to control melt when joining thermoplastic parts. This allows for a highly simplified process when it comes to laser welding clear polymers. All of this makes it possible for device manufacturers to take advantage of the most advanced assembly method available.
Welding Clear to Clear Plastic with Laser Welding Systems
Normally, a transparent upper component and an absorbing agent in the lower component are required when utilizing the laser plastic welding technique. Because of this, the process is not applicable for manufacturing devices when a “clear-to-translucent-colored” or “clear-to-clear” assembly is needed.
Laser welders have recently overcome this limitation though integration of a low cost, stable, higher wavelength laser. A characteristic of this type of laser is that it shows increased absorption by clear polymers, which allows for a well-controlled melting process at the interface of the two optically clear parts.
The medical device industry is now able to fully capitalize on the benefits of the laser assembly process because of this greatly improved and simplified technique. Additionally, this joining technique offers a method of joining optically clear thermoplastics and thermoplastic elastomers without introducing particles, chemicals or solvents.
The system utilizes a programmable galvanometer scan head harmonized through advanced software, which oversees both components responsible for moving the laser beam. A highly precise and controllable delivery of the laser beam is assured when welding large, mid-size or small components.
A range of laser spot sizes are available from as small as 50 microns up to a few millimeters, covering a wide range of applications from welding microfluidic channels to joining polymer films for flexible IV bags and tubing sets.
Laser Welding Benefits for the Medical Industry
The most advanced, flexible and precise assembly technique currently available for plastic components is a laser welding based assembly process. Manufacturers are able to produce assemblies more efficiently and of better quality, while at the same time reducing costs associated with the reject rate because of the repeatability of the process. Laser plastic welding has been widely adopted by consumers goods, automotive and other industries because of these advantages.
Adoption in the medical device manufacturing industry has been slow because the process was based on using either carbon black or laser radiation absorbing agents that are specially designed, expensive or not compatible with contacting solutions or reagents that may end up in contact with the human body, i.e. – not FDA approved materials. With this new method, clear, FDA approved plastics can be joined without any additional absorbing agents or other additives, which makes the process more readily available for medical device manufacturing, bringing along all of the advantages associated with it.
For medical device manufacturers, some typical applications include welding medical device components and common assemblies that are made from unfilled polymers like tube-to-tube, tube-to-port and tube-to-cap parts; microfluidic devices, reagent bottles, IV bags and delivery systems.
Until recently this was not possible with laser welding. Electrical components, housings for surgical devices, sensors, medical appliance components, laboratory ware, infant care devices and blood filters can also be made with this efficient joining method. In summary, any component or medical device that is made from optically clear thermoplastic can be welded without the need to use laser absorbing additives.
Medical device manufacturers need equipment that provides reliability, repeatability and strong process control whether they use automated lines to produce simple sub-assemblies for disposable IV sets, or sophisticated and complex medical devices constructed on pilot plants in single units. Those who provide plastic assembly solutions to the medical device industry are concentrating their efforts to develop the most advanced plastic welding technologies possible in order to address these requirements.
There has been a continuous search to find the appropriate combination of materials that provide maximum durability for users and optimum profit for the manufacturer.