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Plastic Has The “Mettle” For Medical Devices

December 29, 2021

Glass. Rubber. Metal.

For hundreds of years, these materials were the only options open for medical device manufacturers.  Look at an old medical supply catalog and you’ll see glass IV bottles, rubber tubing, metal surgical instruments, metal carts, etc.

That all began to change in 1940s when the first plastics entered the scene.

Slowly, then much more quickly, this new wonder material entered the medical/healthcare world.  Breakable, heavy glass gave way to unbreakable plastics such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) for IV bags, fluoropolymers began replacing metal and glass for IV catheters, silicone edged out rubber for ventilators and other medical “balloons,” and  polyolefins overtook metal for trays and surgical instruments.  New polymers unleashed a virtual explosion of devices and implements which came to depend on the unparalleled properties of plastic including endless malleability, virtual un-breakability,  lighter weight and lower cost.

In lock-step with the adoption of these new plastic medical devices, the health-care industry as a whole began to grow, which led to improved health and longevity of the population in general. New “miracle” drugs such as sulfa drugs, morphine, penicillin, the Salk polio-vaccine, and insulin all led to the medical world being able to provide treatments to a wider swath of the overall population, not just the elites.

Plastic injection molding machine
Plastic Injection molding machine

The wide availability of good quality, clean, sterile, low-cost plastic medical products allowed the widespread growth of smaller hospitals and clinics outside of big cities where the sick and injured country folk could receive first-class medical treatment.

The plastic medical device industry picked up speed following World War II as the baby boomer generation began entering the world.  New advancements in materials science, processing, and assembly combined to produce a $200 billion global medical device market by 2008. With a growth rate of 8%, the size grew to over $657 billion last year (2021). The United States accounts for almost half of the world market for medical devices. Meanwhile, US exports account for an estimated $37 billion, with these products going primarily to Japan (12%) and Europe (46%). The remaining 42% which goes to the rest of the world accounts for approximately 57% of US exports.

Leading the way for non-Japan/European exports are the so-called BRIC” countries of Brazil, Russia, India, and China.  Growth of health care in the remaining parts of the world such as Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa is inevitable.


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