Insights & Trends

Advances in Micro-Manufacturing for Medical Equipment

Guest post by Gordon Styles, founder and President of Star Rapid Manufacturing Co., Ltd.

Micro-Manufacturing: How It’s Rapidly Advancing and Benefitting Patients

In the medical and manufacturing worlds, the next big thing is very small: micro-manufacturing. It’s the process of making complex devices ultra-small so they can perform their functions in the tightest of spaces. Taking the term “minimally invasive” to new levels, these devices keep patients safer during procedures while opening the door for previously unavailable testing and treatment methods. They have applications in a wide range of medical fields, and they’re only getting better. Below, we explore micro-manufacturing and microdevices to give insight into this innovative and rapidly expanding field. 

How Small is Micro?

When a field like micro-manufacturing is “expanding,” it’s really getting smaller — at least in one sense. With each passing year, advances in engineering and production techniques have allowed developers to shrink their micro-devices to previously unheard-of sizes.

According to Raumedic, an industry-leading manufacturer of micro medical devices, “Micro-extrusions can have inner diameters of 0.004 in. with wall thicknesses of 0.002 in., and coatings can have micro-layers as thin as 0.0002 in.” Altogether, that’s a width of 0.0062 inches — slimmer than a fingernail. 

Cirtec, another big player in the micro-manufacturing world, states that its infrastructure can accommodate “features under 10 microns [and] holes down to 40 microns.” For those who don’t know, a micron is one-millionth of a meter — or one twenty-five-thousandth of an inch. An object measuring tens or even hundreds of microns will be barely perceptible to the naked eye.

MEMS: Making the Most Out of Microscopic Measurements

Micro-medical devices may boast impressively small dimensions, but what do those dimensions actually help these devices do? To answer that, it’s helpful to take a look at a certain type of technology central to virtually all micro-medical devices: MEMS. Short for “micro-electrical-mechanical system,” MEMS devices are chip-based technologies that utilize intricate circuitry to perform a variety of sensing and data transmission tasks.

Much like larger computers or specialized electronics, not all MEMS devices are created to complete the same tasks. MEMS devices can be used as accelerometers, gyroscopes, pressure sensors, and tilt sensors. They can also be used as actuators (switches, micro-grippers, micro-levers, and micro-pumps), as well as biomedical solutions such as particulate sensors and air-microfluidic sensors.

The Many Benefits of Micro-Manufactured Devices

With the diverse array of technology found in MEMS now covered, it’s not hard to see how this hardware may be used for several different applications — with advantages for doctors and patients. Today, MEMS technology is used in a myriad of medical fields, including cardiology, critical and emergency care, oncology, ophthalmology, pulmonology, and neurocritical care.

One of the most commonly used types of MEMS devices is a pressure sensor, which accurately and reliably measures pressure in situ (at the source) of several clinical conditions, including those of the heart, brain, airways, and spine. These pressure readouts can help medical professionals find abnormalities and diagnose their causes. 

Precision, accuracy, and overall functional performance aside, MEMS-powered micro-devices have another advantage that directly benefits patients: their size. The body doesn’t do well harboring foreign objects — no matter how sanitized. Surgical instruments, diagnostics devices, and other synthetics can increase the risk of infection and trigger unwanted responses.

Likewise, larger medical instruments can create ancillary damage that can take longer to heal. With smaller devices, comes smaller incisions and less disruption within the body, leading to fewer complications and shorter healing times overall.

Micro-Manufacturing: Considerations for Producers and Buyers

With micro-manufacturing continuing to improve and expand, there are more opportunities than ever for producers and buyers. Below, rapid tooling, prototyping, and manufacturing company Star Rapid has outlined a few considerations for anyone looking to explore micro-manufacturing further.

  • Resins are heat-sensitive. Typically, micro parts are made from technical resins, which tend to be more heat sensitive. Small molding machines, with shorter barrels and smaller shot weights, can process this material more quickly, thereby avoiding the heat degradation that can otherwise happen on larger machines.
  • Small molds benefit from hot runners. Micro-molding machines use hot runner systems with multiple drops to carefully regulate temperatures in every zone. This is easier to do with molds that are typically about 40% the size of conventional counterparts.
  • Fillers can be used to strengthen parts. Fillers are a great way to strengthen small parts. However, they can be a problem if the gate size is small enough to be clogged or blocked by the filler.
  • Plasticizing of the melt must be perfect. Precise plasticizing is necessary to ensure complete packing of very small part features and to avoid sink, which would otherwise be untenable on a small part with little margin for error.
  • Small injection machines save money. Industrial surveys over the last several years have shown that roughly 35% of the plastic components used in commercial products can be made with small injection machines (typically 10 tons or less). This represents the potential savings of millions of tons of plastic that would otherwise be scrapped in larger machines with bigger barrels, gates, and runners.

Gordon Styles is the founder and President of Star Rapid Manufacturing Co., Ltd. Native to the UK, he was an early industry leader in rapid product development and 3D printing. Gordon has more than 35 years’ experience in the UK and China in advanced manufacturing and rapid prototyping.