Very often, manufactures need to create a very small number of microfluidic devices, and traditional methods simply don’t meet the need for short concept-to-chip times. In addition, many users require pumping fluids at pressures of up to many bar, and traditional 3D printers are not able to create devices that seal at such pressures.
“3D printers have existed for a long time, but to date there are no options that address the needs of the community of users that use fluids inside their 3D printed devices,” according to Dr. Omar Jina, Chief Commercial Officer for UK-based Dolomite Microfluidics. “Rapid prototyping of microfluidic devices in a one-step manufacturing process is a significant advancement for the industries that require these devices.”
Dolomite Microfluidics has created the first fused deposition modeling (FDM) 3D printer that allows virtually anyone to make rapid prototypes of fluidically sealed devices using biocompatible cyclic olefin copolymer (COC). The solution is the only 3D printer to use COC thanks to research and development efforts by Blacktrace Holdings Ltd., which enabled the in-house manufacturing of the COC polymer reel. The reel holds 60 m of material with a disposable nozzle that is changed for every reel, and can be replaced in seconds.
The materials available to use with previous types of 3D printers are inappropriate for microfluidics applications since, unlike COC, they are chemically non-compatible, non-transparent and non-biocompatible.
“Fabrication techniques in the fluidic/microfluidic industry are too slow and expensive for a prototyping approach,” Dr. Jina told Design News. “There is a clear market need for a device able to fabricate prototypes in an efficient, cost-effective manner. Such a device would undoubtedly untangle the route to market in the milli- and micro- fluidic industry.”
Structures can be of any shape or geometry, and are produced from a 3D CAD model. (It’s compatible with any CAD software able to export a .stl file.) Users can design their own devices and upload them to the printer via USB, or choose designs from the printer’s library. Customers that choose the latter option can have their first printed device within one hour from receiving the unit, though most commercial customers will ultimately use the printer to create custom-made micro- and milli-fluidic devices.
The evolving field of microfluidics has strong commercial potential, particularly for analytical applications such as biochemical analysis, biosensors, and biochemical assay development. Some chemical synthesis applications also require microfluidics for sample handling, treatment, or readout.
Traditional methods of creating microfluidic structures include injection molding, micro milling and bonding, and 3D printing. For the latter, stereolithography (SLA) printers and selective laser sintering (SLS) printers have been used to produce microdevices, but they do so in a three-step process that involves printing two individual parts, removing the support material, and bonding them. Injection molding is a two-step process that often takes weeks from design to prototype production…not very convenient for an application that requires rapid prototyping
The printer, which has a very small print bed, is particularly suited for the creation of any milli- or micro- fluidic structure requiring internal fluidically sealed pathways. Notable applications and processes include organ-on-a-chip, point of care diagnostics, drug development, chemical synthesis, enzymatic bioconversion, biomedical assays, and for research and development purposes. Device types that can be created with the Fluidic Factory include micromixers, microreactors, droplet and emulsion chips, custom connectors, fluidic manifolds, and sensor cartridge designs.
The solution isn’t meant to replace methods better suited for large-scale production of microfluidic devices. Because of lower costs, microdevices fabricated in cleanrooms and through injection molding, for example, are ideal for final-product stage applications. These methods are simply impractical for prototyping and small-scale production, processes for which the Fluidic Factory is ideal. The printer operates with little to no waste material and doesn’t require any support material. This means that virtually all of the polymer being used during printing is actually part of the microfluidic device. Tooling costs are also relatively low.
“With the Fluidic Factory, it’s cost-effective to print a single device, change the design or geometry and reprint a new device,” said Dr. Jina. “Contrarily, microdevices fabricated in cleanrooms and through injection molding, for example, are ideal for scaling up and creating large volumes of the same design. These fabrication methods are not mutually exclusive. Fluidic Factory enables users to shorten the route to market by allowing affordable and quick fabrication of individual devices. Techniques such as injection molding can then be used subsequently to reproduce hundreds or thousands of the same device geometry.”
The printer was also created to be adaptable for the future. The print head of the unit has been designed to be modular, enabling the potential development of further fabrication heads based on other fabrication methods entirely, and these developments will be dictated by the needs of current users of the Fluidic Factory, according to Dr. Jina.
Tracey Schelmetic graduated from Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn. and began her long career as a technology and science writer and editor at Appleton & Lange, the now-defunct medical publishing arm of Simon & Schuster. Later, as the editorial director of telecom trade journal Customer Interaction Solutions (today Customer magazine) she became a well-recognized voice in the contact center industry. Today, she is a freelance writer specializing in manufacturing and technology, telecommunications, and enterprise software.