Dave Hudson is president and CEO of Joining Technologies, a precision fusion company He can be reached at email@example.com.
Healthcare has been transformed by the development of smaller, more powerful and more useful medical devices over the past generation. In fact, in recent years, the accelerated innovation in the development of new healthcare technologies has been truly mind-boggling. One of the most important factors in the ongoing medical device revolution has been the introduction of new, more precise lasers used in the manufacture of vital healthcare equipment. These advances in laser technologies are leading to the creation of better and less costly medical devices.
The costs and quality of healthcare are largely influenced by the state of manufacturing technologies available to build complex medical devices and machinery that diagnose, prevent and treat countless medical conditions. The evolution of industrial lasers is changing the we manufacture medical devices, lowering costs to medical device OEMs and helping to provide better, less expensive tools for healthcare providers.
Lasers have evolved significantly over the past 15 years, due in large part to improvements in the laser resonator; the place where the laser beam is born and whose lasing medium determines its operating wavelength. A particularly important area of improvement has been in efficiency.
One of the more popular wavelengths for industrial laser processing is 1 micron. Until 10 years ago or so, 1 micron industrial lasers were incredibly inefficient, with just 3% of the energy from the wall plug making its way into the laser beam. The rest was wasted in the cooling of the equipment. Over the past decade, however, efficiency (not to mention reliability and power scaling) has increased dramatically with the introduction of two competing resonator designs: disk lasers and fiber lasers. Not only do these designs represent major breakthroughs in laser technology, but the fact that they compete with each other is driving laser prices down. This progression ultimately benefits medical device OEMs by providing access to laser welding services at lower costs, and healthcare providers, who can obtain important medical devices at more affordable price points.
In 2006, Joining Technologies bought and installed the first 2 kilowatt disk laser used for manufacturing in North America. Within 18 months we saw the same laser, only newer and better, selling for 30% less. As much as it hurt to see a disruptive technology that the company adopted early become available to the masses so much less expensively, it was an exciting reminder of how quickly laser technologies were evolving and advancing. That pace of improvement has accelerated over the past decade.
The introduction of disk and fiber lasers has had a particularly important impact on medical device development. These technologies are replacing outmoded lamp pumped lasers at an extraordinary rate because they are physically smaller and immensely more powerful and efficient. Perhaps more importantly, they are also less expensive to purchase and operate than their predecessors. New and improved optics coupled with these modern power supplies are delivering higher powers onto smaller focal points, producing deeper penetration welds at faster speeds than ever before. Laser beam scanning is being used to simplify part fixturing and to generate lightning-fast weld speeds with previously unheard-of positional accuracy.
Consider the impact of these advances on the manufacture of high volume, single use medical devices. Small, delicate materials are stamped, cut, machined and joined (welded) to create new and improved devices, some of which are microscopic in size. The new lasers are pulling cost out of supply chains and providing economic benefits to the entire industry while at the same time enabling the development of products that would otherwise be impossible to manufacture. And because the technology is more affordable and accessible than ever before, more companies are offering laser processing as a service. Medical device OEMs are seeing an ever-expanding pool of competing laser service providers offering their services and competing for places in their supply chains.
Cheaper and enhanced
When it comes to laser technology and services, it is a wonderful (and less expensive) world out there. Today’s lasers are cheaper to purchase and easier to operate, which has led to an explosion in the number of laser OEMs and service subcontractors peddling their equipment and services to medical device OEMs. The inevitable result of this new competition has been historically low medical device manufacturing costs.
Interestingly, one byproduct of this trend has been a growing chasm in the world of laser welding specialists. Well-established laser service providers with large engineering staffs have shifted their focus to the advanced technical space, providing high value engineering services to medical device OEMs and assisting in product design, prototype development and early production. Conversely newcomers, or companies with smaller engineering budgets, find themselves competing for higher volume production work during the more mature phases of products’ life cycles.
In both cases, competition is on the rise. And in both cases, medical device OEMs and healthcare providers come out ahead by enjoying the combined benefits of better products and lower costs.