Powerful trends are converging to make medical devices smaller, more efficient and in greater demand. The population is aging, insurers and providers are looking to reduce the cost of care, and more health care is being delivered at home. As a result, manufacturers are miniaturizing medical devices to make them portable and even wearable. In turn, manufacturers are requiring custom molded rubber parts that will perform reliably in the smallest devices. As a result, the engineering of a tiny molded rubber part is becoming more complex and calls for specialized capabilities from rubber molders.
Applications for Molded Rubber Parts in Home Care Devices
Providing care at home not only reduces the overall cost of care, but also keeps patients more comfortable. To do so requires a wide range of medical devices developed for home use, such as:
- monitors that capture and transmit vital signs
- ventilators and oxygen concentrators
- therapeutic devices such as dialysis, insulin delivery devices, and negative pressure wound therapy
- leg circulation cuffs for bed-ridden patients
The types of custom molded rubber parts used in portable medical devices include:
- Valve seats
The Complex Functionality of Molded Rubber Parts
Molded rubber parts for medical devices must be manufactured to withstand a wide range of operating temperatures, fluids, gasses and pressures. Many assemblies include rubber bonded to metal or plastic parts.
As electronic components have become smaller, more medical devices operate with a combination of electronics and magnetics, which may be used to open and close a valve to dispense a metered amount of oxygen. These devices, such as oxygen concentrators and ventilators, which employ miniature pneumatics, are expected to cycle millions of times without fail. The rubber molding often serves as an insulator in electronic devices.
The rubber molding firm should be experienced with addressing issues involving “sticktion” – the rubber’s properties of stickiness and friction that will allow a valve to open and close quickly and safely. Another concern is the molder’s ability to bond rubber to inserts made of specialty metals with magnetic properties. In miniature pneumatics, such components require extremely complex geometries and tight tolerances, as well as the ability to withstand operating temperatures ranging from -80F to 500F.
Rubber Materials for Medical Devices
Not all rubber materials are suited for home medical devices. Depending on the application, the materials may need to be USP VI tested for biocompatibility and FDA compliance. If the rubber part does not come in direct contact with the body, the same level of testing may not be required.
When selecting the right elastomer for the application, the molder’s chemists and engineers will consider such factors as the part’s operating conditions and the material’s ability to resist such environmental hazards as contact with fluids, abrasion, and temperature fluctuations, as well as the material’s cost.
The rubber elastomers most frequently used in medical device components include:
- Fluorocarbon (FKM or Viton®)
- EP/ EPDM (Ethylene-propylene-diene)
- Silicone rubber (gum and liquid)
In order to produce molded rubber parts, the molder will develop a custom rubber compound for the specific application, which is a recipe of the proper elastomer plus a mix of specialized additives to address such issues as resistance to UV, ozone or oil, bonding, and electrical conductivity. The custom formulation is tested before production with material batch testing to ensure that the compound and the part will perform as specified. Quality also should be assured through careful material sourcing and 100% material tracking.
Growth in Medical Technology for Home Care
As medical device manufacturers continue to innovate, growing market demand is supporting the introduction of new products that are less expensive, easy to use and effective in home settings.
According to Transparency Market Research, “The home healthcare devices market is classified on the basis of product into therapeutic healthcare devices, diagnostics and monitoring healthcare devices, medical supplies, and mobility assist devices. Among these segments, the market for diagnostics and monitoring devices registered maximum demand in the last couple of years owing to the rising incidence of chronic diseases and increasing healthcare awareness among patients. However, prevalent market trends indicate that the therapeutic healthcare device segment will emerge as the fastest growing segment between 2014 and 2020, registering growth at a CAGR of more than 10%.”
The study estimated, “The global home healthcare market, which was valued at US $176.1 billion in 2013, is expected to reach US $303.6 billion by 2020, registering growth at an 8.1% CAGR between 2014 and 2020.”
The technological advances that are allowing miniaturized devices for home care are also finding their way into devices used in hospitals, labs and clinics, with miniaturized devices that make testing and surgery less invasive and laboratory analytical equipment that speeds results.
Although a molded rubber part may be just a small component of a complex medical device, manufacturers need to ensure that their rubber molding firm understands the unique operational issues of medical devices used in home care settings and produces parts that will perform as specified, time after time.