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MPL Heads Above In Medical Manufacturing

Gatesville, TX-based Medical Plastics Laboratory makes no bones about its special capabilities.

By Karen Koenig

Medical Plastics Laboratory Inc. specializes in manufacturing anatomically correct skeletorns and mannequins for use in medical and trauma training.

The accuracy of Medical Plastics Laboratory Inc.'s products can often mean the difference between life and death.

The simulator/interactive "manikins" (mannequins), skeletons and wound modules it manufactures are used by medical schools, EMS departments and nursing schools and the like for training and education.

According to Kenneth Bullington, Information Systems Manager, "We also have doctors and research people coming to us regularly to design products for actual procedures," he says.

"We actually beta test all our products in the field as much as possible before introducing it to the general public," Bullington says. "Our interactive manikins are portable and can be set up anywhere. They can be used in environments where the trauma team can actually 'work on a patient.' A computer program sets up the basic scenario and will have the 'patient' react to the drugs pushed."

"Even with the different wound modules &emdash; burns, stabs, bullets &emdash; it gives them (medical trainees) experience so when they have 'real' patients, they'll know what to do," he adds.

Casting the First Bone

Medical Plastics Laboratory Inc. was formed in 1949 by three doctors who needed a solution to the closed natural bone market. The three &emdash; O.W. Lowrey, MD, Thomas R. Williams, DDS and E.E. Lowrey, MD &emdash; were successful in using plastic molding to capture the quality of a natural skeleton through step-by-step casting of the natural bones. The company incorporated in 1951 and Price Neeley, a local businessman, joined the company in 1952 as general manager.

MPL has since become one of the first companies to mold plastic reproductions not only from actual bone, but also organs. It was the fist manufacturer to produce an anatomically-correct reproduction of an expertly dissected human body in plastic and has since expanded its line to include 3-D models for all facets of anatomical study.

Simulators, such as Choking Charlie (Heimlich Maneuver), CPR Kelly and CPR Max (for CPR and first aid training), MegaCode and BabyCode (life support trainers) and Mr. Hurt Head (cranial trauma management) are just some of the products manufactured by MPL.

In 1997, MPL introduced the Multi-Sounds Trainer (heart and lung sounds) and the Arrhythmia Scenario Trainer (arrhythmia recognition and scenario training) to its manikins. One year later, Bowel Sounds Trainer was added to the line.

In 1999, the company combined its two divisions of anatomically correct 3-D training torsos &emdash; Spar Pro Inc. and Target Pro Inc. &emdash; into ProLine Training Inc. Adding to the product line is the Power Training Machine for hands-on training and measuring skills in law enforcement, prisons, military and sports.

Today, the company continues to expand under the direction of President and CEO David Broussard, who took over the position from Charles Wise in 1997. Drs. E.E. Lowrey and Williams, Wise, Neeley's son, Bruce, and Sara Lowrey Mackie, the daughter of the late Dr. O.W. Lowrey, continue to serve on the board of directors.

MPL's alliance with the European manufacturer Laerdal Medical Corp. in the fall of 1998 has added to the company's growth by further enhancing its distribution networks and technology offerings.

For additional information on MPL, visit its Web site at

Live Casts

There's a reason MPL's products are so realistic. Not only does the company employ an in-house research and development team with trained medical artists, but the company casts its skeleton molds from actual bones and uses live casts for all its manikins.

The department is run under the direction of Danny Smith, vice president of Research & Development. According to Smith, it typically takes between one to four years develop and manufacture new products for market.

"We will develop products that the medical field needs for teaching. We control all the casting from stage 1 though production; if we can't do a live cast, then we'll sculpt it. If it's an articulating product, we may have to draw it to scale in CAD to see where leverage points will be, for example," Smith says.

"This is an artistic process," Smith adds. "It must be aesthetically pleasing. Realism is extremely important; it helps us stay ahead of the competition."

"Everything is important," adds Bullington. "The weight of the object, its densities &emdash; we even mix our own colors to try to keep everything looking real. Our livers and pancreases have to be the correct color. Skin tones on the manikins are also very important."

Silicones, PVC, rigid and soft polyurethanes, urethane elastomers, epoxies, polyetheylene and phenolics are among the plastics used to manufacture the bones, muscles, organs, ligaments and manikins manufactured by MPL.

Rotational Molding Adds Realism

MPL uses rotational molders to form the manikin components. "It gives us the versatility to make a product that is 'touchy-feely' right. Sometimes you don't have that versatility with injection molding that you have with rotational molding," Bullington explains.

The company has five rotational molders, including an FSP three-arm RotoFlow as well as other older models of molders. According to Bullington, the molders are in use 24 hours a day during the work week.

Once products are rotationally molded, they are brought to the eight-man vinyl area for finishing. As part of the finishing, employees will flash/grind the edges off the forms, add weight or foam, and assemble the products. Manikins can be ordered in specific weights, with 100, 150, 175, 200 and 225 pounds the most common. Additional weights are available through special order.

In order to maintain quality control, the company tries to have each employee work on the product from start to finish. "We started implementing a program where an individual employee would have the responsibility for building of the complete product," says Bill Sweitzer, vinyl area supervisor. "The only time this doesn't happen is if we're gearing up for a big production run. Then we'll do individual assemblies."

It is common to have 15 to 20 models being assembled in the area at the same time, he adds. There are no minimum or maximum quantities for orders.

Manufacturing Strong Bones and Muscles

Nerves, ligaments and tendons are made from a pre-colorized polyester mixture, poured into molds then dried in ovens. "It's a very straightforward process," Bullington says, but one that takes a lot of hand work to complete.

For example, the arteries, hearts and other organs must be hand trimmed after coming out of the molds. In another example, in order to achieve realistic-looking muscles, employees dip strands of fiberglass into a mixture then hand apply onto the plastic muscle to form muscle strands. The attention to detail continues in the finishing area, where not only is the lettering hand painted onto the skeleton parts, but open wounds, such as on Mr. Hurt Head and Lawnmower Foot, are also hand painted by employees.

"This is very precise, detailed work," Bullington says. For that reason, the company employs approximately 100 people in the manufacturing department alone, working a modified three shift/four-day work week.

Included in manufacturing is the design and building of molds. "In the case of bones, we'll start with a real bone and use it to make the silicon mold and prototype," explains James Reed, mold designer. "We'll use a rigid urethane in casting the prototypes so there's no shrinkage." The company maintains an inventory of more than 100 molds, including bones, teeth, tissue and organs.

The "soft" tissues are cast from a polyester material. Bones are cast from Stypol (aka bone plastic), an unsaturated polyester monomer. Once cast, the bones and organs are hand-assembled into skeletons. According to Bullington, depending on the complexity of the skeleton, it can take anywhere from a few hours to several days to assemble.

"We're versatile enough that you don't have to just order off the product line. A good portion of what we do is unique &emdash; a one-of-a-kind model," Bullington says.

Although the trend is toward interactive mannequins, company President and CEO David Broussard says that skeletons will continue to be a core business.

"The next phase will be to have a full simulation (interactive mannequin) in mobile lab setting. This would be geared for the military and other groups, which conduct their exercises out in the field," Broussard says. "I can see having the 3-D interactive products with more electronics so that students will have instant feedback on their treatments. That's going to keep us busy for the next few years."

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Plastics Machining & Fabricating
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