Lasers are hot right now in medical device manufacturing — and we’re not talking about the beam. (The temperature in and around a heated surface is actually one of the many parameters laser operators can tightly control.) Judging from the inquiries we’re receiving every day, laser machining's popularity has grown dramatically in recent years as a technology for making medical devices and components and processing materials and adhesives.
But what lasers can do is only part of the story. The other part is what’s happening in the medical device industry itself. It’s growing fast and undergoing rapid change — and many of these changes also play into lasers’ strengths. The number of people seeking healthcare is growing because of factors like an aging population, new laws (like the Affordable Care Act), and scientific advances (like precision medicine) promising better outcomes. As demand for healthcare grows so does the rate of medical device innovation. In our own business we are seeing more OEMs that ask us about new materials, new (and often smaller) form factors, and even faster turns.
Lasers’ advantages that address these requirements include:
Laser output is highly controllable, which is a big advantage in welding, cutting and marking delicate materials. Also, the heat from the laser stays in a very confined area so there’s less chance of damaging surrounding features. Precise power output also provides very tight control over how deep the beam penetrates the material (the z dimension).
The position of the beam is highly controllable and the beam itself is very precise. That’s important in medical devices where tolerances can be as fine as a fraction of a millimeter. It’s especially important as devices become even smaller and contours and shapes more complex.
Also key in the medical device industry is the ability to turn out products of exactly the same dimensions every time. Because lasers are highly controllable both in terms of temperature and position, and because they can be programmed, they offer extremely high repeatability.
Given the three factors just mentioned, it’s easy to see why very fast turnarounds, even for new product designs, would be the rule, not the exception. That’s important to innovators looking to quickly develop proof of concept and then take advantage of ever-smaller windows of market opportunity.
Lasers don’t require a flux in order to weld two materials together, so there’s less risk of introducing a material — into a bio-implant, for example — that might cause harm. Laser markings also don’t require a pigment, so there’s no pigment to come off and contaminate.
The fact that there’s no pigment to come off also means that laser markings won’t either.
Another key factor medical device OEMs consider is the level of experience — and how much success — a laser services provider brings to medical device applications. In fact, a long and successful track record of demonstrable successes may be the best reason of all why manufacturers now like lasers just as much as physicians and patients have liked them for decades.
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