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The Changing Shape of Optofluidics R&D

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Life science businesses are facing growing demand to keep pace in an era of fast-evolving technology. By recognizing the potential challenges, a growing number of companies are leveraging the resources and creativity of their suppliers. However, others are missing out on many opportunities to strategically engage with their suppliers.

We spoke to Gus Salem (GS), Group President, Scientific Fluidics and Optics at IDEX Corporation and Darren Lewis (DL), Director of R&D at IDEX Health & Science LLC, to learn more about the current trends in optofluidics R&D and how they are assisting their customers.

KS: What are some of the challenges manufacturers come across when developing optofluidic systems?

GS: Modern life science instruments are designed using a collection of teams. Each of these teams typically focuses on their specialized core technologies (e.g., fluidics, optics, electromechanical design, etc.), and contributes those technologies to the overall instrument design. When it comes to commercializing an instrument, problems can often arise from the relative specialization presented from the multi-team approach. Often, other technology generalists are given the tasks of assessing the overall progress of the instrument integration, and sometimes critical technical interface issues can be overlooked until very late in the development cycle, where the cost to make changes is very high.

By way of example, let’s imagine that a particular instrument design requires fluid handling, among other attributes. The fluid handling system would likely be developed by a team that has experience with one or more areas of fluidics (e.g., reagent handling, sample separation, or sample introduction). The team could likely aim to produce a fluid management system that makes no compromises on instrument performance or the quality of results. However, at the system integration step, the developer brings together its previously-separate engineering teams (fluidics, optics, and controls in this example), only to realize that the fluidics system will require changes to the optical and control designs. Two or three prototype systems that operated perfectly on their own are now part of one life science instrument that no longer produces the same critical results. This impediment can drive all the teams back to the drawing board, risking their project completion timeline and increasing development costs. 

KS: How can these challenges be overcome?

GS: Ideally, manufacturers need to work with a component and application-level expert that understands the critical inter-dependencies. A team should have expertise that encompasses every aspect of the design and optimization of fluidics, microfluidics, optics, and sub systems. This level of insight and expertise means that potential obstacles are solved early, resulting in fast and reliable product development with less overall backtracking. 

KS: How is the supplier/manufacturer relationship changing in this field?

GS: A recent Forbes Insight survey found that 68% of life science executives see active and meaningful collaboration with their suppliers as essential to their future success. However, there is still a long way to go, with the current approach to ‘mitigating risks’ creating hidden and unnecessary complexities, uncertainty, and even additional risk. Critical considerations for achieving stronger supplier relationships include culture change, transforming supplier selection, setting protocols for IP sharing, and improving communication. It is encouraging that many life science leaders are aware of the need to collaborate more, even beyond the supply chain. We hope that by redefining the traditional supplier/customer relationship, we will move towards a new era of mutually beneficial collaboration.

KS: What are the benefits of this change in dynamic?

GS: Closer and more strategic supplier partnerships will benefit life science companies in many ways. With some of our most effective relationships, we help customers to solve design and development obstacles through design validation, design for manufacturability, value engineering, and design toward regulatory standards.  Ease of use to end users is also a key design goal for our products.

KS: What are some of your top tips for optimizing optofluidics systems?

DL: For fluidics, challenges rest in the increasing application of biological reagents, the analyses of extremely small samples, and the desires for high throughout and minimal carryover. Achieving these goals within a flow path with little resistance to fluid flow and a high degree of control requires significant expertise.  

For many automated fluid control applications, rotary shear valves coupled to manifolds are a good choice for the instrument designer. In other circumstances, pumps, valves, and flow channels can be built into a microfluidic consumable. Pumps, valves, and flow channels are used for tasks such as solvent selection, droplet generation, flow switching, enzymatic reactions, or even partitioning samples into flowing streams, among a host of other functions. The lifetime of wetted components depends upon many factors, including chemical exposure, sample purity, and reagent lifetime. The rule of thumb here is to decide which components should be kept with the instrument and which are prone to biofouling, clogging or other degradation, and should be discarded as part of the consumable.

Flow paths are usually designed to have the smallest internal volume that will also allow for the pressure handling budget for the instrument. Normally, pressure drop and internal volume are exponentially inversely-related, so they need to be considered together.  

Consumables are often a great choice when cross-contamination of small samples is a concern.  Smarter consumables with active flow control, capture surfaces, valves and other features can add a lot of capability to an instrument.

For optics, a great starting point for optimization is to be extremely mindful of your system requirements, including the overall optical efficiency required, the optical throughput, the wavelengths you will utilize in the instrument, and how you will measure optical properties within your fluidic flow path. Considerations such as whether or not to use line-scan or flat-top illumination methods are important to discuss.

Interaction of light sources with flow path walls, surface auto-fluorescence, surface flatness, and the density of analyte within the detection window of the instrument are critical features to bear in mind.

KS: What do you see for the future of optofluidics R&D?

DL: We are entering an era of accelerating complexity in design and in the scope of new engineering challenges. Keeping pace is going to be central to success for many life science organizations. We expect that they will be more open to tapping into the expertise of key partners for developing and optimizing their optofluidic systems. Reducing complexity (and therefore risk), is key to tackling the increasingly-challenging design problems that are prevalent in modern instrumentation. 

GS: True innovation is, more than ever, based on collaboration in life science. The speed of innovation also depends on it. The design, development and optimization stages each require the involvement of key suppliers. We specialize in developing the complete optofluidic pathway and are already helping customers around the world to deliver efficient, innovative systems quickly and cost-effectively. We look forward to helping many more. 

Gus Salem and Darren Lewis were speaking to Dr Karen Steward, Science Writer for Technology Networks.