Based on 2020 market assessments, the microfluidics market will be at just under $25B by 2025. Broken down by application, most of the growth is in point-of-care applications and tools for pharmaceutical and life science research.
Manufacturing microfluidic devices requires assemble of multiple pieces which can add design complexity, cost, and long lead times. As the microfluidics market continues to grow, researchers need new manufacturing methods to alleviate some of these challenges.
Conventional Production Methods for Microfluidics
Conventional production methods for microfluidics are centered around fabricating the main components of microfluidic devices. The microfluidic devices have to be assembled separately after the components are manufactured. Conventional component manufacturing methods include micro milling, photolithography and etching, injection molding, and hot embossing. Assembly methods include thermal bonding, solvent bonding, lamination, and laser welding.
Convention manufacturing methods lead to long lead times for microfluidic devices. This is a challenge in the development process. Long lead times mean it can take researchers months to receive functional prototypes.
Historical Barriers to 3D Printing for Microfluidics
Historically, 3D printers have not been used to manufacturing microfluidic devices for a few reasons:
Most commercially available 3D printers can only achieve resolutions around 50-100µm. These resolutions can achieve consistent, high fidelity channels around 100µm at best. When designing microfluidic devices, designers typically want the ability to create channels with diameters less than 100µm. As higher resolution 3D printers become commercially available, it is possible to print high fidelity microfluidic channels.
Microfluidic devices need to be built with materials compatible with assembly processes and their intending applications. The materials base chemistry and thermostability are important. Additionally, many microfluidic applications are in life sciences, so materials need to be biocompatible. As 3D printing materials with the right properties become available, 3D printing for microfluidics is made possible.
While microfluidic channels are quite small, the overall build for microfluidic devices is often quite large. Print speed and print area largely govern the production throughout of a 3D printer. In order to 3D print microfluidic devices, 3D printers need high enough resolution to print small channels and the right print speeds and areas to exceed the throughput of traditional manufacturing methods.
How PµSL Technology Can Help
Functional Prototypes with Fast Turnaround Times
Long lead times are a challenge with conventional manufacturing methods for microfluidics. This is a hinderance in the development process, because it can take months to receive a functional prototype after making small changes to a device. Micro 3D printing can greatly reduce the turnaround time. With PµSL technology, developers can get functional prototypes in about a week. Faster turnaround times make it easier for researchers to make small design changes during the development process.
Reduced Manufacturing Costs
When scaling to production, most of the cost in creating microfluidic devices is not in producing the individual components, but rather in assembling the device. Micro 3D printing makes it possible to print the whole microfluidic device at once. Removing the assembly step in manufacturing microfluidic devices increases turnaround times while reducing the cost of production.
PµSL technology offers exciting developments for manufacturing microfluidic devices. With resolution up to 2µm, microArch printers can rapidly produce small parts with +/- 10µm accuracy.