Prescription charge

The medical device sector’s list of requirements, from miniaturisation to at-home patient care, is providing designers and manufacturers with a diverse range of challenges. Julia Pierce reports.


The UK’s medical device market is the fourth largest in Europe, with an estimated total value of £4bn. Characterised by a high level of innovation, it is also the subject of intense competition, meaning suppliers are constantly looking for methods to reduce costs and streamline production.

‘The medical devices sector is the fastest growing market for us,’ said Chay Keogh, marketing manager for Nikon Instruments UK, which makes video measuring and digital imaging systems. ‘We need to move from a production line where components are given a rough visual check to highly-intensive mass checking.

‘Product checkers may be very dexterous with their hands, but we must move to automated checking by computer — the challenge is designing a system that doesn’t fail and works continuously.’

Mass production of disposable equipment in a cost-effective manner has already led to the refining of relatively new technologies for making small precision components.

According to Rachel Conway, sales and marketing manager for Egide UK, an increasing need for single use components for keyhole surgery has increased demand for her company’s products.

Egide produces metal injection moulded (MIM) components. Similar to plastic injection moulding, the process gives engineers a greater freedom of design and enables the use of metals and alloys in manufacturing items with intricate geometries that have previously been difficult or costly to produce. The company differentiates itself from other MIM component producers by keeping all aspects of manufacturing within the company.

‘We have been developing the process for about eight years and it has come on in leaps and bounds,’ said Conway. ‘We can now use any metal or alloy available in powder form. As we produce our own feedstock rather than buying it in we can tailor this to suit the required finish. Many parts are very complex and machining them would cost a fortune, so MIM is a highly cost-effective solution.’

Meanwhile, progress in areas such as internal drug delivery systems has resulted in the need for parts that are not only smaller, but produce the same performance and reliability as their larger predecessors.

In response to the demand for increasing miniaturisation of implantable devices, Electro Mechanical Systems (EMS) has been producing ever smaller miniature drive technology and complex micro-engineering solutions for the medical industry.

‘For medical devices. smaller is better,’ said EMS sales and marketing director Stewart Goulding. ‘In the case of motors, for example, we are always trying to get more power out of the same or a smaller frame size. Working closely with the Minimotor and the Faulhaber Group, we are able to provide motors and planetary gearheads starting at just 1.9mm in diameter. These drives are small enough for use in implantable medical devices.’

Another division of the company, MPS, specialises in high-precision bearing technology, manufacturing ball bearings down to 0.2mm in diameter. The company’s four-point contact bearings are manufactured with biocompatible materials, allowing them to be corrosion resistant. To avoid the need for repeat surgery they have been engineered to last. ‘Thanks to the use of ceramic balls, these bearings need no lubrication; they are totally maintenance free and have an unlimited shelf-life,’ said Goulding.

Meanwhile, pressure on the number of hospital beds and patients’ desire to manage their conditions outside a medical environment has led to a need for portable equipment that can be easily used by the public as well as hospital staff, without losing its functionality.

Norgren’s activities in the medical device sector, for example, are concentrated within two main areas: respiration, including devices such as ventilators and anaesthetic equipment, and in vitro diagnostics.

According to Phillip Orlik, marketing director for Norgren Fluid Controls, the company has noticed three main trends affecting demand. The first is an increasing need for systems solutions, producing a complete fluid control solution. Though solenoid valves and regulators are the company’s core activity expertise, it has been increasingly asked to help produce a complete block for a particular device that includes all valves, pressure regulators, and components such as pressure and fluid sensors.

‘As Norgren can do all the fluid control design it reduces time to market. There are definite assembly and logistics benefits,’ explained Orlik.

The company is also responding to demand for further miniaturisation. It has experienced particular demand for its Chipsol product, a high-performance, compact 8mm solenoid valve that can be integrated into manifolds with a common supply, individual outlets and common exhaust galleries.

‘We have seen a trend towards small, more mobile instruments for use in homecare and emergency treatment, for instance by paramedics,’ said Orlik. ‘Manufacturers require high performance in a small space so that they can build equipment such as small oxygen concentrators that are also very light.’

He also identifies a move that has seen manufacturers looking to their suppliers for innovation. ‘With much equipment moving away from the hospital to homecare there is less professional support during use so instrument makers must design simpler, easy-to-use machines. This is something we are working towards, including making components that require less cleaning.’

The growing popularity of this at-home treatment has also led to the developmemt of a self-diagnosis market, including off-the-shelf kits that can identify conditions such as infertility. As these are sold on the high street, they must be attractively designed, and this consideration of aesthetics is now affecting professional equipment.

DesignEdge designs many products in the medical sector and is finding that, as the popularity of Apple’s iPod in the consumer electronics market has proved, visual impact is becoming an equally important part of production, alongside functionality and price, to maintain competitive edge.

The company’s Renishaw Incise is a dental scanner that creates 3D computer models used in the manufacture of dental crowns and bridges. As well as meeting technical requirements such as being easy to clean and maintain, DesignEdge’s sculptural look meant the device is visually memorable.

As the need for miniaturisation and simplicity of use are driving the medical device market to innovate in terms of component design, so pressure is also building to produce items that are more than simply functional.

For device and component manufacturers, making equipment that fulfils its purpose, is cost-effective as well as eye-catching should provide plenty of production challenges.