By Vijaykumar H.K.B.E
Polymers have always been an immense portion of health care sector. The pandemic is motivating plastics to new application heights. Since the outset of the COVID‐19 pandemic, medical industries have been on the stride to develop useful and supple products that meet the demands of health care networks in uncertain times across the world. Health care providers want flexible, effective and cost‐efficient solutions to patients’ needs. A big part of these developments includes advances in how plastics are manufactured, processed and selected for applications. Technologies as far‐ranging as 3D and increasingly 4D printing are giving part makers and end‐users the flexibility they need for low‐run, economical custom device applications. The growing use of properties‐rich thermoplastics like polyetheretherketone (PEEK) is leading to the substitution of high‐performance polymers for titanium and other conventional materials in implantables. And chemical recycling is not only creating a stream of custom polymers from waste medical plastics but meeting the concerns of hospitals and patients for sustainable device manufacturing. Shortages of everything from hospital beds to surgical masks are seen in this Pandemic situation. But storing additional supplies and adding redundancies can be expensive. In the future, some medical technology companies might help hospitals and health systems use 3D printers to produce some devices or parts on‐site for example a valve for a broken ventilator could be printed at a hospital rather than having to order directly from the manufacturer. The medical industry could help develop products and technologies that allow certain inpatient procedures to take place in lower‐acuity environments—and even in the home.”Such an outlook is common for different stakeholders in the medical technology industry and creates a much‐needed pathway for plastics and specialty materials to assist in the effort. Plastics are, of course, a mainstay of many medical applications.
They are widely used in orthotics, implants and tools, and may be used to form prototypes, models, and other objects and forms for surgery and explanation. They continue to create possibilities, stoking the progress of innovation in medicine, and with them new opportunities to improve physical properties as well as economy. Moreover, adverse conditions such as the current global pandemic are accelerating growth in medical plastics. Health care and medical plastics have been permanently altered as a result of the COVID‐19 pandemic & medical innovation has rapidly changed due to COVID‐19. Innovation is getting improved in three areas: point‐of‐care testing, use of artificial intelligence in robotics and 3D printing.”These three segments are driven by their own complex innovations. Plastics, however, is playing an immediate role in the pandemic, allowing print‐on‐demand capabilities, which allows hospitals, physicians and health care networks to produce and even develop much needed personal protective equipment (PPE).The pandemic is one of positive change that brought changes in medical technology, it acted as a renaissance period for plastics and specialty materials within the medical sector. “3D printing (or additive manufacturing) rose to the call when whole world saw a shortage of valuable PPE for medical professionals, This technology, which was developed for prototyping, became an important, flexible and cost‐effective method of manufacturing finished goods, most of which can be efficiently produced in low volume.
Additive manufacturing, , has customization and time‐saving capabilities that the medical world has yet to fully tap.3D printing and even 4D printing(4D printing, also known as bio-printing or shape‐morphing, is defined as a type of programmable matter that allows a finished part to react with its environment and change shape) applications, for example, introduce the ability for material properties to change over time. Pandemic has brought a new avenue in Orthotics. The evolution of 3D printing technology allows new materials with specialized properties to replace legacy materials that challenged the use of medical objects such as orthotics. Orthopaedics is one notable segment within orthotics that has and will continue to benefit from 3D printing and specialized feedstock material. Many of the metal implants and instruments that used to be manufactured out of titanium and stainless steels are migrating to PEEK (polyetheretherketone) or composite materials such as carbon fibre‐reinforced PEEK. This is basically because of its radiological properties, improved fatigue life and low weight. We are also seeing deeper engineering of current polymers like the cross linking of ultra‐high‐molecular‐weight polyethylene and its Vitamin E infusion, to reduce wear and oxidation in joint replacement applications. There seen a huge push toward materials for orthopaedics and other orthotics that can be manufactured through additive technologies such as 3D printing.
However, such parts have presented underlying challenges in providing mechanical properties as well as other hygienic and utility properties. This means that there are challenges in achieving the appropriate mechanical properties, especially in the print direction, and finding appropriate cleaning, disinfection and quality assurance procedures. There is also a growing expectation of the materials to resorb once implanted in the body and to contain bioactive materials within a plastic that will transform into bone. These are some very interesting development avenues for plastics engineers with a very bright future. Despite the speedy innovation and rapid time‐to‐market that 3D printing and innovative specialized materials bring to new orthopaedic devices, there’s still a hefty regulatory bar they must clear.High‐performance printed polymers are widely used in orthotics, implants and other applications, by themselves or as hybrids, for guidance, prototypes or surgery. It’s logical to conclude that the pandemic has resulted in much innovation for plastics engineers. But what does the future hold for medical plastics? What will customers be most interested in, regarding medical products, materials and best practices in producing them?“Moving forward, the development of medical devices will build upon the same principles of today. Given that the qualification and the acceptance testing requirements to bring new products to market involve a significant amount of time and resources, the importance of close coordination between medical device manufacturers and plastics suppliers throughout the development process becomes increasingly paramount. Medical industries visualizing the cogent case that plastics bring to medical applications. “New advanced recycling technologies, such as depolymerisation, are able to separate impurities at a molecular level.
This results in recycled products with such high purity that there is no impact on the ability to use this material in the medical industry again. Before the COVID‐19 crisis, medical industries faced pressure to localize and instil flexibility in products utilized and consumed. This, perhaps, is an appeal to use plastics and other engineered materials that can meet demands for flexibility, in a pandemic and otherwise. It’s an opportunity to also offer up new possibilities in material sustainability that parallel the efforts of flexible designs. The pandemic has served as an unsolicited call to duty, forcing plastics engineers and the companies and institutions they serve to flex their innovation muscles and put forth ideas and products that represent true values .The pandemic presents new choices, which, if handled well, can produce lasting positive outcomes: “While the crisis will necessitate tough operational choices, this is a time for all companies to live their values. Forward‐thinking firms will respond with new products, services and operating models that support health care organizations and the patients they serve when they need it most—now and in the future. This is both the right thing to do and will position companies for success in the years to come.
(The author is former Assistant Professor-Mechanical Engineering. The views expressed are the personal opinion of the author. He can be reached at email@example.com.