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EPI: Rx for Medical Manifolds

Contract manufacturer Eastern Plastics Inc., specializes in precision plastic
machining for the medical and other industries.

By Chad Sypkens
“How?” you ask. Eastern Plastics is one of only two companies in the world that does such work and has been the world leader in the machining of 8-layer manifolds like this one. Take close look at the internal features, channels, chambers and tracks within this manifold used for various blood analyzers in the medical industry.

Bristol, CT-based Eastern Plastics Inc. is working hard in its 40,000-square-foot building to keep up with job orders that other companies just don’t even want to think about.

Machining parts on more than 50 CNC machines — including lathes, Swiss-type screw machines and machining centers with 3-, 4- and 5-axes, EPI produces complex, close tolerance components, some of which at ± 0.0002 inches, throw EPI into a league of its own.

“Technology, more then anything else, separates EPI from everyone else,” says Vice President of Marketing Larry Dawson. “Our ability to make the world’s most difficult plastic parts, and the technology that we have built up over the last 60 years in our ‘library of solutions’ if you will, is what sets us apart.”

EPI’s abilities include CNC milling, CNC turning/screw machining, polishing, bonding & welding, assembly & testing, CNC drilling/tapping, programmable stress relieving, insertion, assembly and material selection assistance.

Founded by Ernie Brackett in 1960, EPI was located in Plainville, CT, and initially made tumbling barrels used to improve the finish of metal parts and gem stones for all industries. However, Brackett realized that machined plastics were being more widely used and jumped at the chance to make parts for Instrumentation Laboratories in Lexington, MA, EPI’s first big medical contract. The tumbling barrel business fell by the wayside and EPI
has focused on medical machining of plastics ever since, Dawson says.

EPI moved to Bristol in 1996 after outgrowing its Plainville location. It moved to its current 40,000-square-foot plant which offers the capability to expand, “maybe sooner than later.” Already looking to add two additional CNC machining centers, expansion could be on the horizon, Dawson says.

“Being able to expand fast enough to satisfy customer demand is at the top of our list,” says Tom Brackett, CEO of EPI and president of the family-owned business since 1989. “We have plans for multiple manufacturing plants to be built throughout the world at this point and within the next two years to also expand our Bristol plant. Can we expand quickly enough and still maintain quality? I believe so. We will not sacrifice quality for growth.”

EPI attributes a majority of its business to the medical field, with several other areas — electronics/semiconductor, oil, gas, chemistry processing, automotive and printing and graphics — making up the rest.

“We want to maintain all of our markets which we currently work with and increase the focus in some other industries, like semiconductor and fiberoptics for example,” says Brackett. “We currently export a lot of products to Ireland, United Kingdom and Western Europe, ranging fromstand-alone components to manifolds. Those markets demand our attention.”

Manifold Masters

EPI has a stranglehold on one process that is done at very few companies in the world. It is that of diffusion bonding, a non-adhesive, non-solvent process. This process produces multilayer manifolds, some of which are used to conduct blood tests for the medical industry.

“Diffusion bonding utilizes a combination of variables to fuse layers of plastic together to create internal features, channels, chambers, tracks, etc.,” says Dawson. “The number of layers is unlimited, as far as we know. We could diffusion bond up to 100 layers, but the average is three to eight layers.”

‘The Kaizen Blitz’

Eastern Plastics’ Chief Operating Officer Anthony Laraia is also co-author of a book aimed at achieving continuous improvement in an organization — called The Kaizen Blitz. The book outlines how to deliver breakthrough improvements in a company in areas such as productivity, inventory reduction, capacity expansion and more.

“That’s what the Kaizen Blitz can teach you,” says Laraia. “Simply translated as “continuous improvement,” Kaizen is a highly focused process aimed at producing incremental performance improvements in narrowly targeted areas. The Kaizen Blitz involves everyone across an organization, managers and co-workers alike.”

Eastern Plastics has utilized these techniques for the last two years to make vast improvements in the overall operation of its company.

A Kaizen team is assembled that will help determine solutions for a company’s specific problems by designing new systems, correcting mistakes quickly and moving on, running and refining procedures, and demonstrating a new process in place in just a few days.

“We do a lot of lean manufacturing projects, instituting lean manufacturing principles at Eastern Plastics,” says Laraia. And according to Larry Dawson, vice president of marketing, it isn’t just how it helps the company, but what it does for the customer as well.

“It has improved our on-time delivery, helped us control costs, improve quality and decrease internal failures,” says Dawson. “That falls into controlling costs. If we are scrapping less, we are driving our costs down and it has allowed us to increase capacity and productivity in general. The customers have definitely noticed. Our on-time delivery ratings have improved greatly.”

Dawson also notes that the solutions to some of EPI’s daily processes reduced on-site inventory allowing for more space, more CNC machinery and higher production.

The steps in this process occur in EPI’s highly-controlled clean environment or segregated controlled-environment assembly and testing facility within its building. The factors vary depending on the particular material type and thickness which has been predetermined by EPI and the customer. Material type will often weigh on the internal features that will be involved. “If the internal features are vast and you have large chambers and large tracks, and a lot of material to be removed, then the heat and time are going to be different than if there were only a few tiny little channels,” says Dawson. “It means there is more material being fused together, which means more time.”

EPI’s manifolds are contracted out to major clinical diagnostic equipment manufacturers, such as Abbott, Baxter, Beckman-Coulter and Bayer Diagnostics.

“It is what we are world-renowned for and, dollar-wise, it is a good part of our business,” says Dawson. “We make several thousand manifolds a year — very close tolerance, very complex work — which is why people come to us more then anything else. Our motto is “Machining Parts Others Can’t,” and that is the customer we are looking for. They are coming to us to machine the complex, close tolerance parts and manifolds because no one else can.”

Although EPI is constantly experimenting with new materials, the manifolds are typically made from materials like acrylic, polycarbonate, PVC as well as Ultem, an amber colored material from GE Plastics.The manifolds are machined first, then diffusion bonded. “We start with flat plates, mill out the tracks and then drill connecting holes,” says Dawson.“We use conventional multi-axis CNC equipment for any other necessary machining.”

Upwards of 50 to 60 hours will go into one manifold from the time EPI receives the stock shape from Modern Plastics, its primary stock shape supplier in Bridgeport, CT, to final assembly and stock testing, which includes validation or “flow testing.” The manifold gets pressure-tested as engineers look for leaks, flow, pressure and decay of pressure, all of which generally fall under flow testing. This will validate the diffusion bonded manifold assemblies so that final polishing and the addition of ultrasonic inserts and other types of fasteners can also be added.

“We also embed substrates into the manifold, for instance, metal contacts, diaphragms and mixing elements,” saysDawson.

EPI began this unique manifold process 12 years ago after fulfilling one particular customer’s request for an integrated fluidic circuit. “They are almost like a circuit board, but instead of utilizing electricity, the manifold checks fluid,” says Dawson. “It was driven by customer demand that we develop a process to arrive at multi-layer manifolds. It is still a developing process, but after 12 years we continue to improve each element along the way.”

EPI placed a considerable investment of time and money to arrive at the first commercially successful manifold. Each time they switch materials for a new application, the process of experimentation begins again to arrive at the correct combination of parameters.

“There is a lot of experimentation and application development that has to happen before we can say, ‘Alright, we know we can put this particular manifold with this particular material out on the market’,” says Dawson.

The complex curvatures and use of a material that is extremely difficult to work with requires multiple stress relieving steps.

“We work on a regular basis with tolerances +/- 0.0002 inches; very close tolerances,” says Dawson. “Complex shapes and curvatures, materials that are susceptible to residual stress; acrylic all the way to Vespel or polyamimidids. But that is what keeps us motivated. Finding new ways and better ways to arrive at a better product.”

Many of EPI’s 165 employees have extensive experience. Machining nothing but plastic since 1960 has allowed them to come to understand the correct way to do things. “Most of our employees have been here in excess of 10 years, some of them upwards of 35 years, so there is a lot of experience among our machining and engineering groups. You also need world-class equipment and facilities and capital to be able to experiment. Some machine shops will look at something and say, ‘No way, I don’t have time to fool around with that, let alone make it.’ We look at it and we say, ‘Lets figure out a way to make that.’ Our success is a combin
This multi-layered, diffusion bonded manifold shows the internal tracks and features that has been equipped with valves, connectors, electrodes and seals. This type of complex manifold will be used for OEM fluidic applications.
ation of experience on the machining floor, the skill of the programmers and the skill of the tooling designers. We make most of our tooling in-house, and the fixtures, vices, pallets and clamps all help in making the final product.”

Industry Applications

EPI produces parts for thousands of applications across all industries. Anywhere that plastic materials find a performance fit, EPI has the capability to produce close tolerance, high quality parts using a database of 21,000 materials. Some of the more popular materials include: ABS, Acrylic, CPVC, Delrin/AF, Ertalyte, Fluorescent, Halar, Isoplast, Kel-F, Kynar, Noryl, Nylatron, PEEK, Polycarbonate, Polyethylene, Polypropylene, Polysulfone, PVC, Radel, Rexolite, PPS, Teflon, Tefzel, Torlon, Turcite, UHMW, Ultem, Vespel. Examples of applications in some of the industries we serve are:
Aerospace / Aircraft: Avionics, antennae, enclosures, connectors, fuel cells, hardware components, insulators, wave guides

Computer/Electronics: Automotive connectors, hard drive components, batteries, connectors, insulators, lighting, print heads, reels

Fiberoptics: Connector elements, simple and hybrid connectors, lenses, manifolds

Fluid Engineering: Simple and multi-layer manifolds for liquids, gasses, vacuum; dispensers, flow control, pumps, valve components

Medical Diagnostics: Manifold blocks and sensor housings for analytical and clinical chemistry analyzers; filtration, sensor bodies, sample ports and carousels

Medical Devices: Components for scopes, dental and ophthalmic tool housings, probes for ultra-sound and endoscopes, provisionals, handles for orthopedic and surgical instruments

Military: Ordnance, sights, radar and guidance system components

Oil & Gas Exploration: Sensor bodies, transducer housings, sub-sea connectors, down-hole components

Optics: Laser optics, fiber optics, high-end consumer lenses, medical lumens

Semiconductor: Wafer processing, chemical handling, vacuum chamber components, chip handling, IC sockets, water analysis

For more information on Eastern Plastics, go to www.easternplastics.com

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