What if you could carry a laboratory around in your pocket? Imagine taking a blood sample and using a device no larger than a credit card to test it. You hold the test results within 20 minutes instead of waiting days for a well-equipped lab to process the sample. Fortunately the enabling technology to do this has been in development since the 90’s and is commonly known as microfluidics, Lab-On-A-Chip, or Micro Total Analysis System. Microfluidics is a growing market. Pharmaceutical and biomedical researchers are likely to use over $1 billion worth of microfluidics devices by 2016 according to Drug Discovery World (DDW). The overall microfluidics market is also projected to reach almost $4 billion in that same time period.
Microfluidic devices allow for the automated manipulation of sub microliter volumes of bio fluid. A blood fractionation device for example will push the fluid through thin channels with diminishing widths, slowing the fluid down to the point where the plasma will separate from the red blood cells. With channel thicknesses ranging from 100 nanometers to several hundred micrometers, the process may occur multiple times on a surface smaller than a business card.
Researchers typically use soft lithography to build device prototypes with PDMS, an inexpensive, clear and biocompatible material. Unfortunately this process is manual, difficult to automate and slow. Most commercial microfluidic devices are developed for injection molding in an inexpensive transparent material. Even with current advances in injection molding, a basic mold for a simple geometry is in the range of $15,000-$20,000 and a complex mold for a three layer device can exceed $100,000. Low volume production thus becomes impractical given the high tooling costs.
The growth in microfluidics is being augmented by another emerging industry which has been around since the late 80’s called 3D printing, or additive manufacturing (AM). 3D printing is a game changer in several areas providing increased speed, quality, consistency, customization and cost benefits in developing microfluidic devices. Stereolithography (SLA), a 3D Printing technology developed by Chuck Hull, is now a viable manufacturing alternative with unique advantages over traditional methods. The SLA process produces complex geometries not otherwise possible and at no additional costs. With 3D Printing, complexity is free. Furthermore, 3D printed micro devices offer a new opportunities and alternatives for markets with low volume production like biomedical research instrumentation, clinical trials, classroom projects and custom devices.
The power of 3D printing to improve microfluidics as well as change the larger pharmaceutical & biomedical landscape is already being realized. From upstream R&D to full scale production and supply chain, proven processes are currently being improved while the new and revolutionary advancements in 3D printing and 3D bioprinting promise a bright future.
W. Daniel Fraser
New Business Development-Technology
Fraser- Advanced Information Systems
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