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Down to the Wire – ‘Spiderman’ microwire used in medical devices

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Spiders have been doing it for millions of years: Spinning out material that’s stronger than steel, and—metaphorically at least—lighter than air. Luckily for the spider, she doesn’t have to cut tight-tolerance features on her delicate tapestry, or twist it up into precision coils and helix shapes to catch her meals.

The microwire industry is spinning a tale of commercial success by taking a raw material—wire smaller in diameter than spider silk—and making it into a wide range of medical and other commercial parts.

Johnson Matthey Inc., headquartered in West Chester, Pa., provides micromachining services such as hole drilling, grinding, turning and milling. It also manufactures tubing, foil and wire for micro applications.

“We don’t make guidewires, but we do supply the material—platinum, iridium, platinum-tungsten and platinum-nickel alloys—most of it in the 2- to 5-mil range,” said Brian Woodward, general Manager of Johnson Matthey’s medical components group. “But we can go down to 1.5 mils. We call that fine wire.”

Fine wire indeed. How do you make something that small? “It’s a typical wire-drawing process, in that you’re drawing wire through a die and gradually reducing the size and controlling process parameters until you get to your finished size,” Woodward said. “People have been doing this for years. There are some wires smaller than 1.5 mils. Wire dies from those applications are readily available. But not everybody knows how to use them. That’s where we come in.”

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