Nondestructive testing (NDT) is becoming progressively more important in the medical industry. Whether it’s used by medical practitioners themselves—such as in the sonogram/ultrasound technology and X-ray technology—or by manufacturers in the medical appliance arena, NDT has a growing place in this booming market.
In an industry that has nowhere to go but up, the demand for innovation—such as in areas like Remote Visual Inspection (RVI)—is high. “Just like a lot of industries, everything going more and more compact,” says Greg Burdick, national sales manager at industrial borescope company Richard Wolf Industrial. ”We see the same in the aviation industry, where they want smaller and smaller inspection instruments in various applications.”
Richard Wolf is experiencing this demand for small but powerful tools firsthand. The company’s medical-sector clients, such as injection molders and subcomponent suppliers to large medical companies, want smaller borescopes with higher resolutions. The problem is, borescopes that fit these resolution demands can’t be made small enough and actually hold up over time.
“You’ve got a rigid borescope and a semi rigid [borescope], which uses pixilated image bundle,” Burdick explains. “The semi-rigid doesn’t offer the resolution the customer needs, but it allows you to make a much smaller instrument to meet the customer’s demand on the diameter. One of the biggest problems we’re finding is, the instrument that can be used for the application meets the diameter criteria, but doesn’t meet the specification on the resolution criteria.”
As these resolution criteria demands change with the times, Burdick says Richard Wolf is doing everything it can to keep up. After all, the medical appliance market isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. “Medical is always going to be there, no if-ands-or-butts about it,” Burdick says.
As the medical market grows, so does the need for quality control within medical material manufacturing. This demand has been good for companies such as New Kensington, PA-based West Penn Testing, who, in early 2012, announced its projections for a double-digit increase for testing of surgical-implant materials that year. “We are already experiencing a rise in medical-sector tests driven as predicted by demographic and regulatory changes,” West Penn’s Director of Sales Albert R. Fletcher said. “Our response is: hire, train more Level II inspectors and build more test cells.”
The “explosion of digital technology” has a lot to do with the booming market for medical imaging systems and X-rays, says market research company ReportsnReports. This has contributed to a rapidly-growing global X-ray market , which is expected to grow at a steady compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.5% from 2013 to 2018, the company says.
Manufacturers of medical products now have the tools to validate their loads faster, which means faster product to market cycles. High-resolution, CT-based defect analysis and dimensional measurement systems now enable clear-cut, 3-D representation of objects, localizing and measuring in 3-D even low-contrast defects in cast parts.
Developers of medical devices such as hearing aids, a syringe, or a variety of medical assemblies are experiencing a demand for this technology. Carl Zeiss Industrial Metrology (Brighton, MI) currently addresses that need with its computed tomography coordinate measuring machine (CT CMM) called Metrotom, a CMM with an X-ray sensor on the end. This helps validate the assembly process. “It even allows us to look at parts within the sterilized packaging so you never even have to take a finished product out of the packaging,” says Kevin Legacy, Manager: Computed Tomography & Engineering at Carl Zeiss.
Makers of implantable medical devices are also benefiting greatly from X-ray and CT scanning. Crucial devices that must be inspected for the tiniest cracks—such as stents or pacemakers—benefit from these ultra-precise inspectors.
“The advancements of how the technology works; the speed; the resolution; the contrast: all of those factors have really taken [CT scanning from being] a product that was only used in say an R&G lab or a very slower moving situation, and [given it] the speed and the ability to see things either in resolution in time that we weren’t able to do before,” says Ben Connors, manager, inspection services at North Star Imaging (Rogers, MN). “Years ago a scan that would have taken an hour can now be done in a minute or less depending on the situation. It’s a neat advantage.”
Connors recalls recent projects that took North Star minutes to inspect, that once took them hours, thanks to its EFX software package, a computed tomography. “Years ago there was a project we had with a medical device company where they were doing 2-D X ray, and we could see most but not all of their requirements,” Connors notes. “There was one area that was challenging to do. As the EFX software advanced, both in our reconstruction speeds, as well as the way it complies the data, we were able to do a project that they used to do manually with film and now the machine basically does the work for them. So the benefit to the company was reduced labor, reduced consumable cost, reduced footprint, and reduced footprint in their overall operation.”
Connors sees NDT “growing substantially” in the medical arena. “It’s very, very common for us to meet with a medical device manufacturer and have an engineer that’s never seen the technology before, whereas if you go to an airplane manufacturer, they have an NDT dept, they have an NDT person, they look at that the same as other fields.
“Overall, medical devices are just very exciting and very cutting edge, and CT scanning can prove or disprove a medical device company’s concern in one scan.” This makes a big difference in the medical arena, where speed-to-market matters, Connors adds—“it’s tough with medical devices to get something approved in the market, so it’s a tool to get it out quicker.”
Legacy also says that the future of the medical market bodes well for NDT.
“As the medical market grows, what we’re going to see in the future is the demand for better technology, more precise technology,” he explains. “As a result of those demands on those demands on medical companies, they’re going to need better and better inspection technologies to allow them to make their products better. So I see it as a very complimentary arrangement as we move forward.”