Aluminum is an amazing material that has impacted nearly every major industry over the past century. That includes the medical industry and the many devices that are transforming healthcare as we know it. Thanks to aluminum, people all over the world are living longer, healthier lives. Today we’ll be looking at what aluminum alloys can commonly be found in the medical industry and why they offer so many advantages.
Medical care is an industry that has very little margin for error. Lives are literally at stake. For any material to be deemed fit for medical devices, it must meet very high standards of performance and reliability. A factor not always considered in other industries is that medical devices, tools and equipment must have very high sanitation levels. This is an area where aluminum particularly excels.
If you work in the medical industry or are manufacturing products intended for medical use, you need to be sure that any aluminum you source is of the highest quality. That’s why it always pays to work with a trusted supplier with a proven track record of success.
What are the advantages of aluminum?
Many of the same benefits that make aluminum so desirable in modern industries such as architecture, aerospace and tech are also useful for the medical industry. Most obviously, aluminum is extremely lightweight and has one of the best strength-to-weight ratios of any metal. This means that equipment made from aluminum can be thin, light and flexible, yet still be extremely strong and durable. Very few other materials can match aluminum in this regard.
Another advantage of aluminum is its formability. Devices made from aluminum can easily be fabricated to whatever form is desired, making it useful for medical devices that must be fashioned to exact specifications. This is especially true for therapeutic and prosthetic equipment and devices that are custom fit to a patient. Aluminum, with its exceptional design flexibility, has helped make modern advances in medical devices possible.
Aluminum is also prized for its excellent corrosion resistance. This is critical in the medical industry where sanitation and cleanliness are necessary. Medical equipment is often exposed to bodily fluids, heavy-duty cleaners and other corrosive liquids; aluminum’s ability to withstand corrosion is a perfect match. In fact, aluminum has a natural ability to form what is known as a passivation layer that protects aluminum even if it becomes nicked or scratched.
Other benefits of aluminum that make it suitable for medical devices includes its machinability, recyclability and the fact it does not require a large investment to machine and fabricate, making it a cheaper alternative to some other high performance materials such as stainless steel.
Is aluminum safe for the human body?
A lot of medical equipment is not directly inserted into the human body. For example, one common use for aluminum is in stethoscopes, thanks to its light weight and durability. For any metal that’s going to be inserted inside the human body, medical implants that may be used either temporarily or permanently, the concept of biocompatibility is essential. While aluminum is not an approved material for implants, it is often used in disposable and ancillary equipment for surgical and medical procedures.
One way to ensure that medical equipment is biocompatible is to anodize the surface. This is a method for increasing the surface protection of aluminum material and makes it better able to withstand corrosive environments. An anodized coating helps to enhance aluminum’s natural corrosion resistance. If necessary, an anodized aluminum part can also have additional sealing added as well.
The anodizing process involves the part being submerged in an acidic bath containing an electrical current. The tank wall will have a cathode, allowing the aluminum to naturally become an anode. The electricity causes oxygen ions to bond with the aluminum surface, improving the natural process of passivation discussed earlier.
Which aluminum alloys are found in medical devices?
During the design process, there are several important steps, such as planning for manufacturing and determining critical tolerances, that are just as important as deciding on the right material. With aluminum, this isn’t always easy because there is a tremendous diversity in the available alloys. Before selecting, you must carefully go over all the mechanical requirements for the material and match these with an alloy that is well suited.
Aluminum devices are often utilized for orthopedic, endoscopic, spinal, trauma and surgical scenarios. That is in addition to non-specialized hospital equipment, including trays, bedpans, containers, and cases. Aluminum is lighter weight than stainless steel and more durable and hygienic than most plastics.
One of the most prevalent aluminum alloys is 6061. It is a precipitation-hardened aluminum alloy, with magnesium and silicon as its major alloying elements. It has been around since 1935 and exhibits good mechanical properties and weldability. Anodized 6061 is also biocompatible, so one may find this alloy in medical equipment and devices. The same is true of the alloys 6063 and 3003.
For highly specialized products such as the latest medical implants, the most common materials are stainless steel, cobalt-chrome, titanium and nickel-titanium alloys. These premium alloys offer advanced attributes and a high degree of specialization.
Your Technical Services Professional
There’s no room for mistakes when it comes to medical devices. That’s why manufacturers in the medical field are increasingly relying on aluminum. Partnering with an experienced supplier means you can receive guidance on everything from material selection to supply chain logistics. You want to know that every bit of material you’re working with meets the highest quality standards, and at Clinton Aluminum we want the same thing.
Our goal is to always live up to the high expectations of our customers. In order to make this goal a reality, we are committed to working with our customers through every step of their procurement process. Get in touch with one of our friendly customer service representatives today to learn more about which aluminum alloy might be right for you.