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Engineering Plastics Deliver Cost/Performance Advantages as Metal-Replacement Option

High-performance thermoplastics are enjoying strong growth as a replacement for metal in a broad range of medical and healthcare applications. These high-performance materials are known for their mechanical properties and are proven in their unique ability to cut system costs through lower production cost and a reduction in the number of secondary operations, such as machining. Metal-to-plastics conversion also provides additional benefits including weight reduction, chemical and corrosion resistance, design freedom, and improved functionality of the final device.

Numerous trends in the healthcare industry favor the use of high-performance thermoplastics in a range of applications including instruments and devices, sterilization cases/trays and medical equipment. These trends are focused on cost reduction, but also include prevention of infectious disease, practitioner comfort, product differentiation and improved logistics.

The Economic Advantage

In economic terms, high-performance thermoplastics deliver significant system cost reductions. And while it’s difficult to cite a firm cost number, since each part has its own variables (weight, design, etc.), it can be estimated that the manufacturing cost can be reduced by up to 90 percent when replacing metal with injection molded plastics. This economic advantage will come primarily from the more cost-effective manufacturing process and reduced number of manufacturing steps to produce the final part.

High-performance thermoplastics can provide a weight reduction of up to 80 percent compared to surgical stainless steel. This enormous weight reduction helps reduce practitioner fatigue during long procedures and promotes greater precision. Additionally, the use of high-performance plastics allows greater design flexibility and improved ergonomics through the integration of functions such as silicone over molding to make soft-touch parts that facilitate the practitioner’s work. Such a weight reduction, particularly in surgical instruments and sterilization cases/trays, also facilitates handling, particularly during disinfecting and sterilization processes, and reduces the weight that nurses and other hospital personnel must carry, thus improving worker safety.

Some high-performance thermoplastics also offer excellent compatibility with commercial sterilization techniques, thus helping to prevent the spread of infectious disease. In material selection, end users and processors must consider the type of sterilization methods that will be used and number of cycles, along with the cleaning agents and disinfectants, because these will dictate the materials that can be used for the application.For example, only a handful ofhigh-performance plastics such as polyphenylsulfone (PPSU), polyaryletherketone (PAEK) and polyetheretherketone (PEEK) can withstand over 1,000 steam sterilization cycles without any adverse effect on mechanical properties.

Medical device manufacturers can also achieve product differentiationby designing with high-performance plastics. For example, products molded of colored resins allow for quick identification of the instruments (type and/or size) during a procedure and also permit the use of a manufacturer’s branding or trademark. Because plastics are integrally colored, molded parts will retain the same color after scratching and marring, unlike painted parts that can be damaged. Decorating options,, such as pad printing and laser etching are also possible for identification.