The manufacturing industry and the medical sector have always worked together closely. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, it was the UK manufacturing industry that was called upon to produce enough ventilators to meet projected demand, leading to the establishment of the Ventilator Challenge UK consortium. Indeed, the production of life-saving medical equipment requires the skill of engineers, but so does progression within the sector overall.
All manner of engineering processes are used to manufacture medical equipment. From machining, injection moulding and electronics, through to fabrication, plastics and everything in between, the medical & healthcare sector requires a range of suppliers within its sphere. Additive manufacturing has also gained a lot of momentum in recent years, allowing for a greater degree of innovation which more traditional production methods did not allow for.
Medical Manufacturing - An Overview:
The scope of medical manufacturing is so large that it's almost impossible to list all of the different areas it covers. However, the advancements within the field have led to a greater quality of life for millions of people across the globe, as well as earlier diagnosis and treatment for a range of illnesses and diseases.
Some of the key equipment manufactured for the medical industry includes:
- Implantable medical devices: This includes replacement joints (such as hip and knee), implantable cardiac monitors and defibrillators, stents and pacemakers.
- Diagnostic equipment: Such devices include MRI scanners, ultrasound technology and ECG monitors.
- Life support equipment: This includes ventilators and dialysis machines.
- Surgical equipment: Scalpels, forceps, clamps, needles and saws used within surgery.
These are only a few examples of the range of equipment required by the medical sector overall. However, it is absolutely crucial that all equipment and instruments are manufactured to the highest standards of quality, which is why the medical manufacturing industry is so heavily regulated. No matter what the process, a base level of ISO 9001 certification is almost always needed, whilst many manufacturers will also need to be accredited to ISO 13485 - a standard that deals specifically with the manufacture of medical devices.
Medical manufacturing also incorporates a range of different materials such as stainless steel, plastics and titanium, as well as a number of alloys. The breadth of the medical manufacturing industry is so large that it certainly does not allow for a 'one-size-fits-all' approach; instead, many manufacturers focus on the production of specific instruments or piece parts for use within a wider assembly.
Innovation Within Medical Manufacturing:
Though the medical industry is reliant upon the manufacturing sector to sustain its current abilities, manufacturing has also led to breakthroughs in the way that illnesses are diagnosed and treated. Additive manufacturing has been at the helm of recent innovation within the medical sector, with many advancements made possible due to the versatile nature of this group of processes.
The production of bespoke prosthetics via additive manufacturing has allowed for a higher degree of comfort and functionality, but this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to potential applications. Back in March 2018, I published an article addressing the ways in which additive manufacturing could revolutionise the hospital environment; disposable surgical equipment could be 3D printed to specification, with additive manufacturing even having the capabilities to eventually produce internal organs and valves. Such advancements would slash transplant waiting times, whilst removing the need for autoclaving procedures to sterilise hospital equipment.
These notions might sound a little adventurous, but they are entirely possible. 3D printing has already been used to replicate functioning ovaries within mice, raising hopes that human infertility treatment could be upgraded thanks to additive manufacturing.
However, that's not to say that innovation within medical manufacturing is limited to 3D printing alone. Owing to the complexities of medical manufacturing, it will never cease to require a vast range of processes, meaning that any future innovation is likely to create more opportunities for the sector at large.
An Essential Relationship:
If we have learnt anything from the events of 2020, it's that both the medical and the manufacturing sectors are absolutely crucial within the wider scope of society. The NHS continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic on the front line, whilst the manufacturing industry has kept the healthcare sector well-stocked with essential equipment to assist with its efforts.
Twelve months ago, it was almost inconceivable that the UK manufacturing industry would slow almost to a standstill, but the first national lockdown ten months ago proved that this is possible. Whilst other vertical markets were impacted by supply chain disruptions, production for the healthcare industry had to ramp up to meet demand, resulting in a redistribution of priorities as illustrated by the Ventilator Challenge UK consortium. This goes to show the importance of the relationship between the healthcare and manufacturing industries and subsequently, just how important manufacturing is for our ongoing survival.