September 29, 2015 | Brianna Schaeffer

Related Articles


Explore materials, technologies, design, and manufacturing in the life sciences.



5 Simple Rules to Source Advanced Flexible Materials More Effectively


Material sourcing is a challenging task.  It is both time consuming and difficult to identify high quality vendors of advanced flexible materials - such as flexible foam, technical textile, nonwoven, or other flexible materials that are used in technical applications. These are five simple rules to live by when you are sourcing flexible materials - they will help you reduce the time and headaches associated with identifying suppliers and matching material specifications to your application. 


Leverage Your Network

Sourcing advanced flexible materials is an involved process, and Google is not necessarily the best place to start. Leveraging your existing personal network is one of the most efficient ways to identify potential suppliers. Your network is likely acquainted with a broad range of industry professionals, many of whom you would never encounter through your own online searching. Developing a strategy to communicate with your network, and maintain a regular dialogue, is one of the best ways to circumnavigate long material sourcing cycles. 

A helpful tactic is to establish a minimum of one strong contact in each of the major material sourcing areas that you typically work in.  Knowing who to call when you are sourcing an extruded net versus a PES membrane is a key advantage to have. When you establish these contacts you want them to be willing to help you beyond just the products their company can offer. They should have a strong network in the industry, be able to teach you about its ins-and-outs, and guide you towards the most appropriate solutions.

Once you have developed these contacts you need to cultivate a long term relationship that is mutually beneficial.  If you only call when you need something don't expect it to last forever. Whereas, if you can form an ongoing dialogue and interaction about flexible materials you will likely have a fruitful relationship that lasts.   


Prioritize Your Material Specification Properties

Knowing the priority of properties in a material specification, such as tensile strength or thickness, is extremely important to identify before you start engaging with suppliers.  A great practice I use is to rank the importance of all properties, and then write out tolerances for each so I know exactly where I have flexibility, and where I don't. This preparation will be tremendously beneficial to suppliers, because it allows them to efficiently collaborate with your organization and steer you towards more viable options.    

Your prioritized list of material specification properties will also allow you to cull through suppliers more quickly, and hone in on areas of interest. If the property with the top priority in your material specification is not a core capability of a supplier, it should be easy to identify and move on quickly. A good supplier will also be quick to recognize when something is outside of their capabilities and have an equally vested interest in moving on.

It is helpful to remember that suppliers are not all-knowing. When they are given a material specification, with no indication of priority, all they can do is guess at what is a best match for you. Typically this results in a long iterative process between you and the supplier where you are evaluating a large quantity of irrelevant materials. Unfortunately, this can also lead two companies away from each other too quickly when in fact there may have been a fit.  


Focus On The Specification, Not The Application

Knowing the product's application, its associated technical attributes, and the quality and regulatory environment surrounding it is critically important.  But it is not the best way to FIND a material. Far too often, too much focus is placed on the application of the product rather than the specifications associated to the material itself. For the most part, suppliers are more comfortable speaking about and marketing their materials from a technical perspective. Empowering yourself with the knowledge to speak technically about the specifications of flexible materials will empower you to make better decisions and direct your search effectively.   

Many times a material specification is unknown or has limited information, which is one of the reasons people focus on the application.  Identifying a comparison material, and then guiding your search based on that material specification, can be a great way to navigate out of this situation. 


Identify Your Limiting Factors

Limiting factors are key decision points that go beyond the scope of the material specification, but carry equal or greater weight in the final decision making process.  These could be items like budgetary, environmental, regulatory, or logistical considerations. These factors need to be identified early in the process, and remain top of mind throughout the process to avoid steering the project into a dead-end.   

The medical manufacturing industry provides good examples of this as there are a handful of limiting factors that ultimately drive the material selection process quite significantly. Sterilization is a great example, where a product's limiting factor can affect both timeline and budget. Gamma irradiation is an affordable and quicker solution; however, it has a limited list of material compositions that can withstand its deep penetrative process. Ethylene oxide (EtO) is a much more costly and time consuming validation process, but there is a much larger range of materials that can undergo this form of sterilization because it can be used at low temperatures. Both of these processes are commonly used in medical device manufacturing, so knowing if you are limited by one of these options early on is important. 

Many times these limiting factors are identified in the early stages of a project, but then have a tendency to get lost in the details of a project. This can have lasting effects on a project’s timeline and budget, or even end in complete termination if the needed changes are significant.



Understand Minimum Order Quantities (MOQ)

The minimum order quantity for a raw material you are not purchasing yet is the last thing on the mind of a product development team or R&D department. Yet, MOQs are one of the most important pieces of commercial information surrounding raw materials.  In fact, it is not uncommon for a supplier to start the conversation with a discussion about volume, or at least potential volume. It is also not uncommon for projects to be well on their way through the material selection or even development process, only to be suddenly halted because MOQs cannot be met.   

Minimum order quantities are especially relevant at the intersection of flexible materials markets. Typically, capacity is built for very large volume product applications (think diapers and wet wipes), but in comparison, life sciences and medical device manufacturing markets have relatively low volumes (think single use bioreactor or wound care dressings).

There are several ways to mitigate this problem. The most important step is communicating the project volumes to the supplier from the beginning, whether it is asked for or not. If this volume does not meet the vendor's MOQ, then a discussion regarding rises in predicted future volumes can be made. Some specialized manufacturers are willing to produce volumes below their MOQ initially, if the product has a promise of higher volumes or brings them into a desirable market they are not in today.

Another tactic to help reduce the impact of volumes is identifying the shelf life of a material. A material with an extended shelf life, beyond one year, can enable the use of a blanket purchase order - where a supplier makes the material in one production run - but then ships it to the customer through a series of scheduled releases over time.  Some customers can also accommodate the inventory from a MOQ production run and simply store the material for a long period of time themselves. Not all supply chains can accommodate this model of purchasing but for those that do, it can be a great fit. 



Material sourcing is a challenging task.  It is both time consuming and difficult. These are five simple rules to live by when you are sourcing advanced flexible materials - they will help you reduce the time and headaches associated with identifying suppliers and matching material specifications to your application.

  • using your network can lead you to quality vendors that would have been difficult, if not impossible, to find without their resources
  • prioritizing your specifications will allow you to narrow in on a company and facilitate meaningful development
  • knowing your limitations will allow you to narrow in on a company and facilitate meaningful development
  • focusing on the specifications that are driving your product development, rather than the market it will be sold in, will provide a greater selection of quality vendors that can be evaluated.
  • volumes are going to be the main component of your project that will motivate vendors to become more engaged, so developing a preliminary forecast is very important.


Explore materials, technologies, design, and manufacturing in the life sciences.


Articles & Resources

Our articles and resources explore materials, technologies, design, and manufacturing in the life sciences. Together we're advancing biomedical innovation through curiosity and shared knowledge. 


Video Series

Boyd Biomedical Design Stories explores what it takes to commercialize biomedical innovations in a modern susteainable way. A way that's the best way - for patients, practitioners, and all of us - as we seek to advance healthcare together. 


Documentary Film

Project Frontline is a feature length documentary film which tells the inspiring story of collaboration during crisis and is a cautionary tale about our leadership in innovation, advanced manufacturing, and supply chain resilience.