The trend seemed as inexorable as it was depressing: for the past 20 years, China had dominated the manufacture of injection-molded plastic products in the medical technical field, mainly because of lower labor costs.
But there are signs that the trend is not as inexorable as we once thought. In fact, many companies are returning their production to the US and Europe for quality issues, higher labor costs be damned. Interestingly, some of those companies aren’t even American and European. Embarrassingly, even some Chinese medical technical companies are buying molding tools, as well as finished injection-molded plastic medical products, from US and Europe manufacturers because of the poor quality of products produced in their own country.
But quality is only one reason for this new wave of “reshoring”: in the last few years,vastly increased automation (read: robots) has swept over the med-tech industry worldwide. This automation has served to increase production efficiency and reduce human labor costs while saving energy and materials. Most critically, it has improved quality, accuracy, and precision.
Oh, one more advantage enjoyed by US plastic injection molding companies: Trace-ability. Medtech products, especially intricate ones with tiny plastic details, must use parts and materials which pass regulatory muster in multiple countries, regions and other governmental jurisdictions. If a medical technical part can’t be traced along the entire supply chain, the risk of non-compliant parts slipping by increased dramatically. Trace-ability can also be used as a method of stock control and monitoring. At many plastic injection molders, each batch of plastic, from the moment it arrives on the loading dock, to the moment it is inserted into a live patient, has its own unique identification, allowing it to be traced at any time back to the molding company.
But the re-shoring’s latest advantage is something China would have a very hard time duplicating: “just-in-time” delivery, with products that are ready-to-use in the clinical setting, be it the doctor’s office, the outpatient clinic or the hospital at exactly the moment they’re needed.
Even with the seamless logistics of trans-Pacific shippers, that kind of precision is simply impossible for Asian manufacturers to duplicate.