IBC: focus on standardisation
One particular area of discussion is the interchangeability of sterile connectors to enable single-use unit systems with sterile connectors from different suppliers to be linked. In preparing my talk, I also discovered that there is already an interchangeable "standard sterile connector" recognised by industry. If you search for this phrase in Google Images, you'll find a photo of a traditional two-way hosebarb fitting.In my talk, I discussed how standardisation of advanced sterile connectors must begin with the end-user's company. Different systems' assemblers and integrators can generally source whatever advanced sterile connector is specified, so the first effort must be for the end-user's company to decide what its preferred sterile connector will be. Since the introduction of the first advanced sterile connector (Pall's Kleenpak), there are now five additional designs on the market from other suppliers, but there is still no industry consensus on which design might become the "standard" of the future. Unlike the easily copied tri-clamp style hygienic flange connector, which is commonly used in stainless steel and some single-use systems, or the aforementioned hosebarb fitting, many advanced single-use sterile connectors incorporate patented technology and designs. Users calling for the standardisation of sterile connectors have yet to address which design should dominate or why the patent-holder should license their design to competitive suppliers. Once bioprocessers agree on a preferred design within their own facilities or companies, once there is consensus on an industry-preferred design (such as happened with tri-clamp style connectors) and once patents expire, options will appear to either standardise to one of the original sterile connector designs, or perhaps users will prefer an innovative proprietary design that is superior to current designs, but has yet to be seen. Until then, care has to be taken to avoid inhibiting innovation and it may not be realistic to expect meaningful voluntary standardisation from the bioprocessing supply industry.
One area where there is an industry initiative underway to standardise connectors, however, is for polymeric 'tri-clamp' style hygienic flange seal connectors. In response to stimulus letter from the BPSA, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers' Bioprocess Equipment group (ASME-BPE) has formed a task group to review the requirements for single-use polymeric tri-clamp style connectors and how the ASME–BPE Standard for stainless steel hygienic flange seal connectors can be modified in response to accommodate their use. Unlike their stainless steel counterparts, single use polymeric tri-clamp connectors do not require cleanable finishes, crevice-free cleanable seals, or thermal resistance and mechanical strength suitable for steaming in place. They also do not require tolerances that are readily achieved with stainless steel on a lathe, but are difficult to achieve with plastic moulding, thus incurring unnecessary mould costs. Expansion and relaxation of the ASME–BPE standard to cover the specific requirements for single-use polymeric tri-clamp style connectors will be a benefit to both suppliers and users.