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The Rx for Medical Manufacturing: Micro-Cutting

By Jack Shaw Contributing Editor, SME Media

Medical manufacturers have steadily improved their devices and techniques to deliver quality and efficiency while complying with industry regulations.

In many cases, this means using tiny devices that are less invasive and much more precise. But to keep pace, manufacturers must employ ever-smaller tools and machines—including micro-cutting devices.

Laser Tech

Micro-cutting can vary for medical manufacturers, depending on their niche. Companies use numerous strategies to reach desired outcomes, including metal fabrication and laser technology, two of the most common practices today.

The rise of micro-cutting has helped boost client satisfaction and improve patient outcomes, according to Derrick Hathaway, sales director at VEM Medical, a provider of medical mold tooling and cleanroom injection molding.

“Innovations in tooling, laser technology and CNC machining have enhanced the ability to achieve intricate cuts with utmost accuracy,” Hathaway explains. “These developments help us to produce smaller and more intricate components crucial for medical devices.”

Laser micro-cutting can increase precision and enables contactless cutting for machines. Additionally, laser technology requires less heat and stress on components, leading to higher-quality products. Laser-cutting machines reached a $6.8 billion market value in 2022, with a 5.5% CAGR forecasted through 2030, according to a recent report by Grand View Research.

Under the laser umbrella, medical manufacturers use welding, ablation, drilling, wire stripping and other emerging practices to enhance devices. Laser cutting is critical for producing stents, chips and tools needed for neurological work, such as the probes and scalpels that enable minimally invasive procedures.

Laser cutting uses beams to melt and remove the desired material with designated nozzles. Modern technology allows fiber lasers to create a more precise beam on each device. Additionally, they reduce the heat-affected zones and reduce the risk of cracking and warping.

Laser welding, meanwhile, produces strong bonds without the need for filler. In the medical industry, laser welding is used to create heart valves, catheters and other life-sustaining devices.

Metal Fabrication

Metal fabrication and nitinol processing are also commonplace in medical manufacturing. The value of metal fabrication is estimated at $21.8 billion in 2023 and a 3.4% CAGR through 2030, according to Prescient Strategic Intelligence.

Metal fabrication is a standard practice to shape or join objects, including hip and knee replacements. In these cases, strong metals such as titanium and chromium are used to create the devices, while micro-cutting allows a few ways to turn these metals into the desired product.

VEM micro-cutting machines
VEM uses micro-cutting machines to produce precise components for medical devices. (Provided by VEM Medical)

As in other applications, CNC machines also are popular with medical device manufacturers, allowing them to implement automation and take advantage of consistent quality. Such qualities are even more important in health-related devices, both from a patient wellbeing perspective as well as meeting compliance and reliability requirements.

“Micro-cutting plays a pivotal role in the production of medical devices by enabling the precise fabrication of intricate components with unparalleled accuracy,” Hathaway says. “The capability to create intricate, miniature structures contributes to the development of advanced and highly specialized medical devices.”

Metal fabrication includes turning and micro and chemical milling. Milling is cost-effective, efficient and easy to swap for numerous metals. Meanwhile, turning tends to be best for making medical screws and other tiny objects.

Micro Challenges

Micro-cutting has come a long way in medical manufacturing and has vastly improved equipment. However, the technological advancements come with challenges for manufacturers and machine shops.

Cost is a limiting factor for smaller operations looking to upgrade their machinery. While laser technology has developed and decreased in cost, the price tag could eclipse the six-figure mark. Smart strategies could reduce the ROI timeline, but having enough capital to purchase the necessary equipment is crucial.

Another challenge for medical OEMs is the safety of micro-cutting machines, which can compromise operators’ eyes and hands if a failure occurs or the worker isn’t wearing protective gear. Additionally, the dust and fumes can cause long-term damage to respiratory systems. As a result, companies must take the proper precautions to protect their workers and machinery.

“The intricacy of medical components requires specialized tools and equipment, stringent quality control measures and adherence to rigorous regulatory standards,” Hathaway stresses. “Ensuring the safety and reliability of medical devices adds complexity, necessitating meticulous attention to detail throughout the micro-cutting process.”

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