An article published by BMJ Quality & Safety journal states, “The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the long-standing vulnerability of the medical product supply chain into sharp focus.”
The shortages faced by many healthcare providers during the pandemic are testament to the accuracy of the above statement.
From these shortages and the disruptions resulting from them, healthcare facilities and equipment manufacturers were forced to develop new ways of preparing for future crises.
Die casting can provide several advantages in helping manufacturers and healthcare service providers meet the demand for medical equipment during crises like Covid-19.
This article focuses on the benefits of die casting in helping manufacturers respond to that demand. We start by looking at how the Covid 19 crisis led to a shortage of medical devices and why die casting could be a viable solution.
The Impact of Covid-19 on the Medical Device Industry
Jamie Bell is an editor at the NS Medical Devices website. He reports on current trends and emerging technologies in the medical devices space.
In his article entitled “Six ways Covid-19 has impacted medical device markets,” he writes, “Industries, markets and businesses the world over have been turned upside down by Covid-19, and this impact has been especially profound within the medical device sector.”
Bell reports about the measures taken in various countries to respond to this challenge. For instance, he reports that while many countries tried to ease the shortages of essential equipment by importing, the crisis also increased the domestic production of many devices.
Some countries took drastic measures to alleviate the shortage. For example, Bell describes how the European Union had to postpone its Medical Devices Regulation (MDR). According to Bell, “This decision was taken to allow the European medtech industry to cope with the impact of the Covid-19 crisis.”
What is Die Casting?
The Mechanical Engineer’s Reference Book defines die casting as “a type of casting in which molten metal is quickly transferred to a metal mold and the solidification of the metal is in this mold.”
The same source adds, “The transfer of the liquid metal to the mold cavity is carried out by a system where the liquid metal thrust force and the rate of filling the mold can be controlled.”
The Mechanical Engineer’s Reference Book also notes that the quality of products incorporating the die casting technique depends on several factors, including “pressure application timing, fluid metal fluidity, heat transfer, and dimensional stability of both metal and mold.”
Two main die casting processes exist: hot chamber and cold chamber. The hot chamber process is mainly used for low melting alloys like zinc. In this process, the metal from which the die-cast part will be formed is heated inside the casting machine instead of a separate furnace or machine.
On the other hand, in the cold chamber process, a separate furnace is required to heat the metal until it melts before it is moved to the casting machine, where it is forced into the mold cavity.
Is Die Casting a Suitable Method for Making Medical Equipment?
Like every other sphere of life, the medical industry is evolving rapidly. Sometimes it has to deal with crises that no one could have predicted, such as Covid-19.
The industry’s evolving and often unpredictable nature means that manufacturers face the constant challenge of designing complex medical equipment no one may have imagined only a few years ago. This is where techniques like die casting come to the rescue.
Die casting is known for making strong and durable parts for devices in any industry. Once the mold has been created, thousands of high-precision medical device parts can be made quickly and cost-effectively.
Alloys suitable for the die casting technique, such as zinc and aluminum, are used in manufacturing parts for medical devices.
The Benefits of Die Casting When Manufacturing Parts for Medical Devices
The North American Die Casting Association (NADCA) acknowledges that “Manufacturing parts through the die casting process offers a number of benefits.”
The NADCA names some of these benefits. “Production is fast, making it ideal for high and very high volume production runs,” it explains. “Close tolerances can be held, net-shape or near-net-shape parts are produced, and material properties are good.”
In the medical device industry, these benefits can have a substantial impact on reducing human error and ensuring patient safety. This is especially the case if you consider that medical devices are becoming complex, and during medical crises like Covid-19, shortages force manufacturers to increase production within short periods.
Now, let’s look at these benefits in greater detail.
Shorter Design and Launch Times
As we have learned from the Covid-19 crisis, some medical emergencies don’t give manufacturers and the healthcare sector a chance to prepare. As the pandemic peaked for the first time in 2020, many healthcare centers were inundated with patients but still had to rely on the same equipment they used before the crisis.
In such times, there is a need for processes that can produce many parts within a short period. This is where a high-speed production process like die casting is appropriate. Design and launch times are shorter because there is usually no need for machining, and the die casting mould for a specific part has to be created only once.
Die casting also leads to shorter design and launch time because it allows processes that would have otherwise been disjointed to be done simultaneously. For example, with die casting, it’s possible to factor in processes that would have been done later, such as fastening elements into the earlier parts of the process.
In comparison to other processes, die casting involves less machining. This is another way to save time when making parts for medical equipment during a crisis.
Machining has several disadvantages, especially in crises where products should be delivered to customers quickly.
Some of the disadvantages of machining that you don’t have to worry about when using die casting techniques include:
- The component’s accuracy depends on the operator making it.
- Because consistency between machined parts cannot be assumed, every part must be inspected individually, which requires time and labor.
- Apart from the need to have many operators, machined parts require skill, which may be in short supply during a crisis.
- Some parts are either too small or complex to successfully manufacture using the machining process.
The fact that less machining is required when using die casting processes means that material is not wasted. For example, there is often no need to remove excess parts as the products are usually molded precisely the way they should be.
Accuracy and Constancy
Medical devices have to attain high levels of accuracy. Apart from this, some may be pretty complex.
Die casting allows manufacturers to produce parts with great accuracy, even those with extremely thin walls. The process allows casting to be made from corrosion-resistant alloys. In the medical field, this is often a statutory requirement.
The Importance of Compliance
A medical crisis like Covid-19 may call for fast production of millions of parts for equipment, but there are still stringent regulations that manufacturers must meet.
The multinational law firm, Linklaters LLP, headquartered in London, shows the need to comply.
It writes, “Companies seeking to contribute to the COVID response will need to assess whether they can comply with … regulatory requirements, in addition to balancing the contractual and, potentially more important, reputational risks of supplying this vital equipment.”
This means that if you are going to select a company that uses die casting processes to manufacture certain parts for your medical devices, you should do your due diligence.
For example, if you are in the United States, you must determine whether the manufacturer adheres to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations. The agency’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health regulates firms manufacturing, repackaging, or importing medical devices for sale in the U.S.
The Future of Die Casting in the Medical Field
With forecasts indicating that people will live longer, it can be expected that the need for medical devices will continue to rise. This is also inviting many players into the medical devices space.
As manufacturers face increasing demand, they will probably be left with no other choice but to find manufacturers that deliver products faster. Those manufacturing parts using die casting processes may have a competitive edge.
The publication focusing on design and manufacturing processes for medical devices, Today’s Medical Developments, predicts that new alloys will be introduced.
It notes, “Flow-filling and mold-filling capacities have been optimized by adapting alloy compositions using grain-refining elements, among other methods, so that maximum quality can be achieved – particularly with very thin-walled components (down to 0.3mm thickness) or high surface demands.”