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  • Writer's pictureNed Patton

Composites in Medical Support Equipment

I am going to talk a bit about medical support equipment in this post and how composites are beginning to replace metals in a number of applications. These ranges all the way from small surgical tools all the way to enclosures for MRI machines as well as security.

The surgical instrument equipment manufacturers, for instance, have been very busy creating non-magnetic instruments that are easy to sterilize and also are a little easier on the patient. These cover the small surgical instrument business from forceps to retractors to many other small, stiff but flexible enough, lightweight devices. Surgeons like these because they are easy to manipulate since they are lighter than their metal counterparts, and they are also a little softer on the tissue and don’t do as much damage to surrounding tissue as things like metal retractors do.

Patient mobility is also a very big deal. The big, heavy wheelchairs and gurneys are being replaced with carbon fiber/epoxy structure that weigh about a quarter of their metal counterparts. And some of them even have a bit of a racy look for those that need to use them for mobility. This of course is enabled by the ease of making very complex curved shapes that the use of composite materials affords. The same is true of braces for things like knees that need to be stabilized in order for the patient to walk on their own, or for elbows or shoulders when a patient is healing from reattachment of ligaments and muscles. The composite material braces are light, strong, and can be made to be just flexible enough that they allow for good mobility without having the patient’s stitches come apart.

Even large machines like MRIs need to have non-magnetic housings that are strong enough to hold the guts of the MRI very steady as it is making an image. To do that with a metal frame would make the machines far too heavy to install in most hospitals without reinforcing the floor. The magnets are heavy enough in and of themselves, so having the frame that holds them in position accurately that is lightweight is a big bonus.

And, of course, there is the humble Composite Overwrapped Pressure Vessel or COPV. These are increasingly being used for medical oxygen to allow greater portability for those patients that are on oxygen. Most of the current tanks are aluminum, and they are usually fairly small and need to be replaced often. The same weight tank in a COPV holds about 50-70% more oxygen and doesn’t need to be replaced as often. Alternatively, a COPV that has the same storage capacity as the standard size aluminum oxygen tank will weigh about 50-70% less than the aluminum one does. There is in fact a company – Steelhead Composites – that has pivoted over to making medical gas cylinders – primarily oxygen. They did this because of the demand that was generated by the COVID pandemic and the needs of the long COVID survivors.

So, just like a number of other industries, some of which I have touched on in this newsletter, the medical support equipment industry is very rapidly adopting composite materials for their products and devices. This is of course because of the nature of composites and also because of the fairly recent reduction in costs for the raw materials. The cost reductions in carbon fiber because of the investments that the fiber manufacturers have made in high volume production as well as the reduction in costs for the precursors to the fiber manufacturing business have made carbon fiber structures cost competitive with most metals. This is especially true where weight is a large driver of the device. This is the real motivation for all of these industries to move toward composites – that’s where the future is.


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