The medical industry is on the rise, not least because of the coronavirus crisis and its effects. Demand for test drugs, syringes, and other medical equipment has increased worldwide, and many companies have therefore toyed with the idea of switching to this attractive industry. But doing so is not so easy, as medical technology poses a number of challenges for manufacturers.
One company that already knows the medical industry well is Werkzeugbau Ruhla GmbH, from Thuringia in Germany. Originating from a watch manufacturer and taken over by a family company from Lüdenscheid after German reunification, the business has a total of over 100 years of experience in the manufacturing of precision tools. Although the fields in which the toolmaker specializes have changed over the years – from the watch industry, to automotive, to the information and communication industry, to the medical industry that it serves today – one thing has remained the same: its focus on small, precise parts.
Werkzeugbau Ruhla produces multi-cavity tools, mostly 64-cavity, which can make 64 syringe cylinders or plungers every ten seconds. Due to constantly increasing demand, they make not only plastic parts such as disposable syringes, but also blood lancets and infusion systems. Their injection molding tools can be used to produce different sizes and types of syringes (with Luer lock, needle lock, and Luer slip connections). Syringes, after all, are not all the same. Managing director, Lena Lüneburger, presents one of the company's new products: a set of tools for a syringe, with a K4 safety pin that closes the needle, thus ensuring that it is only used once. The World Health Organization (WHO) now prescribes this so that the same vaccination syringe is not used twice. "We are currently one of the few tool manufacturers in the world who build tools for this kind of safety pin," says Lüneburger.
"Sustainability is a major trend in medical technology. Customers are being required to produce faster and faster using fewer materials and less energy."
Another innovation which has put Werkzeugbau Ruhla on the map is a tool they have developed for one of the world's lightest vaccination syringes. "Normal plungers have four wings. Together with a customer we developed a three-wing plunger for a 0.5 ml vaccination syringe," says Lüneburger. "This saves a lot of material, making production more sustainable." In the medical industry, like in other areas, the trend is moving towards sustainable production. "The aim is to enable customers to manufacture their tailor-made products faster using fewer materials and less energy, regardless of whether they are in the diagnostics, medical, laboratory, or packaging industries," says Lüneburger. Werkzeugbau Ruhla therefore always checks with you whether weight can be reduced and how cycle times can be shortened. The tools themselves are also built to be as compact as possible, because the smaller the tool, the smaller the injection machine you need to accommodate it, and a smaller machine usually consumes less electricity. Moreover, the materials used also play a role in sustainability.
"In medical technology, it is function, accuracy, and stable processes that count. These are what matter most."
Werkzeugbau Ruhla is very export-oriented and ships 60% of its tools to countries like India, Russia, Indonesia, Israel and Ireland. Most of its customers are located abroad, but the toolmaking itself will remain in Germany, as it requires unique expertise in terms of both design and manufacturing. Werkzeugbau Ruhla does not manufacture products in series; all of their tools are one-offs, developed according to customer requirements, often with customers' logos, and subject to very specific visions. "What we sell is a way of achieving what the customer wants," says Lüneburger.
One of the challenges with multi-cavity molds is that the parts they manufacture must be cross-mountable. Tool sets are often made for an assembly, and all of them are multi-cavity. The finished product could be a soap dispenser or a blood lancet; if a single one of these parts is not exactly the right size, the device may not work. Another challenge is that many parts are used directly in or on the human body. "A plastic particle must not get into the body, because that would be extremely dangerous," explains Lüneburger. Werkzeugbau Ruhla's customers also manufacture their products in clean rooms, and this has to be taken into account when the tools are made, avoiding substances like lubricant and grease. Quality requirements are therefore extremely high. Wire-cutting and die-sinking EDM machines are used to manufacture the tools, all of which come from GF Machining Solutions. The company recently purchased two FORM X 400s. The machines are also used in development projects, such as mold inserts that are to be finely eroded instead of polished, as polishing is more expensive and time-consuming.
Managing director, Lüneburger, is still captivated every time a multi-cavity mold is tested on the injection molding machine for the first time and ranks of identical parts come out. She also appreciates the dedication that allows her employees to come up with custom solutions. The medical industry offers the ideal basis for this: "When a product is approved in the world of medicine, the design doesn't change as quickly as in other industries. What really counts is function, accuracy, and stable processes. These are what matter most."