Medical pouch seals must be optimized to maintain sterilization

In the medical device manufacturing field, sterility is a fundamental concern. If a medical device needs to be sterile for use, it must be delivered to the end user in a sterile condition. Otherwise, the product is worthless. The pouch materials and the heat sealing conditions must be carefully determined so that the seal can both sustain and maintain sterilization.

Heat seals are created by delivering a specific temperature, under a specific pressure, for a specific amount of time. When designing a package and defining its optimal sealing parameters, manufacturers run a DOE (Design of Experiments) to determine what the low and high points are for temperature, pressure, and dwell time.

Then, they use this data to create a 3D matrix, where the center point marks the optimal temperature, pressure, and time. They also identify a process that has a range above and below the temperature set point, time set point, and pressure set point, where an acceptable, although not optimal, seal can still be achieved. This creates a window for alarming around the optimal seal parameters where the heat sealer can operate.

The more consistent a heat sealer is in delivery of temperature, pressure, and time, the more repeatable the seal strength will be—and the more repeatable the seal strength is, the tighter the manufacturer’s statistical control over that packaging process. Tight statistical control is important. If a manufacturer has to defend their packaging process during an FDA audit, tight statistical control will give the FDA more confidence in the development of the packaging process.

Manufacturers need to validate their heat sealers to verify that they deliver the same seals in a repeatable manner cycle, after cycle, after cycle. These processes must be minimally affected by operators, and they need to deliver the designated temperature, pressure, and dwell time repeatedly and reliably.

How to measure medical pouch heat seal integrity

There are a few different ways to verify seal integrity and quality. The most common way is to measure peel strength using a tensile tester. This process involves clamping a sample of the seal into the two plates/grippers of a tensile tester, and then measuring the force required to separate the seal. The goal is to achieve a repeatable seal strength, so this test will typically be conducted multiple times. Another way to test seal integrity is to use a burst test, where the inside of the pouch is increasingly pressurized until it bursts and/or the sterility is compromised. Medical device manufacturers use a Process Capability Index called CpK, to describe how accurate and repeatable the seal strength is over the course of a sample lot.

Recently, the FDA has begun to focus more than ever before on the statistical control that medical device manufacturers have on their processes. This means medical device companies are being driven to have a higher process capability, or Cpk. CpK indicates how accurately a medical device manufacturer can control medical pouch seal strength, and how repeatable their processes are. It is imperative for medical device manufacturers to identify the sources of variability in their heat seal processes, and then control those variables with precise and reliable systems for temperature, pressure, and timing.

Different heat sealers run differently. For example, in an impulse sealer, heat can build up in the bar that supports the wire, and that can change the amount of heat that packages is exposed to over the course of a production run. This type of variability can result in peel strengths that change throughout the production run. This is one of the reasons why it is more difficult to achieve a high CpK with an impulse sealer compared to a constant heat sealer. With a constant heat sealer, the seal heat is stable, leading to a high CpK.  

Keep in mind that temperature, pressure, and dwell time are all interrelated. Of these, the two most critical factors in seal strength are temperature and dwell time. Pressure is the least impactful, because once intimate contact is achieved, increasing seal force, or seal pressure, will not have a big impact until the pressure level increases to the point of squeezing the adhesive layer out of the seal. So seal force is the least impactful, once you’ve achieved intimate contact.

Throughput objectives can be a factor, as well. If a medical device manufacturer wants to maximize throughput, they may increase temperature and decrease dwell time, because they want to get more medical pouches sealed faster. Another manufacturer may want more process stability, and so they may opt for a lower temperature with a longer seal time. The ultimate goal of either throughput or stability will drive the sealing process toward low temperature with high time, or low time with high temperature.