The Biggest Challenge Facing The Future Of Microfluidics: Standardisation
In the third of our four part series with Dmitry Kashanin, we look into one of the biggest challenges facing the future of microfluidics - standardisation. With a long and thorough history in microfluidics, Dmitry has been taking part in discussion workshops run by the microfluidics standardisation committee and kindly shares with us his views on the matter.
“So I think the next big step for microfluidics would be to have some sort of standards in that in that area. If microfluidics were to grow into something similar to electronics, it would be very beneficial to everyone. Where there are standard electronic components, there are standard modules, and you can build anything out of these modules. If we could do that in microfluidics and create these standard components then it would become very easy to build complicated assays. It would be just like soldering components on a board.
At the moment, the microfluidics industry is a whole zoo. At Cellix, we are getting involved in the standardisation committee in microfluidics, trying to find common grounds in the field. We don’t want to push anyone but it would be great if people were aware of some standards that might exist.
For example, if I develop a new chip, it would really useful to at least know what connectors exist for that chip so that I don’t need to redevelop every single part. It’s likely that somebody would already manufacture a component and that component will have its own connector. Why can’t we make a chip that goes with that connector?
And it's not about competition between one microfluidics company and another. Its actually about genuinely trying to develop the area in a more streamlined and less chaotic way so that at some stage down the way it can converge.
At Cellix, we can be seen as a microfluidic company but we are now more an integrator of different components. It would be extremely beneficial for us if there were more standard components which would allow us to more easily collaborate with other companies.
"I’ve been asked if standardisation will end up monopolising the industry but I think it will be the opposite... It gives more people a chance to compete."
I'm involved in the microfluidics standardisation committee workshops which is currently made up of the academic community, microfluidic companies, pump manufacturers, microfluidic chip manufacturers and integrators like us.
In the workshops, we have discussion groups for a few different topics. There's microfluidic interfacing (all the connections to various types of modules of microfluidic chips), fluidics control, testing of microfluidic devices and then there's also a more complicated group which takes all that complexity together in building the modules and devices. We’re trying to develop several standards at the moment, like how do you test the devices?
I think people are keen to get involved. There are competitors of ours in the committee but we are working together happily. Actually, it's a very healthy competition, we use each other’s technology and everyone is better off.
There is a lot of work to be done. It’s still a long long way away. But it’s good that we are talking and building a community. I think right now that's the most important part. It means that everybody is aware this is somewhere useful we can put in the effort to improve the field of microfluidics.
The standardisation committee is all done voluntarily but I don’t think many academics see the value in it. That's a pity though as it’s actually better for them if they have access to standard components. And if manufacturers used these standards to produce devices they wouldn’t be drilling holes a hundred different sizes. We want to decide on a perfect size hole and perfect space between the holes. Imagine if electronic components were all different types of build, you couldn’t make anything out of them.
If the committee does its job, we’ll all be using the same measurements, same testing, same quality control, same design principles. It will be easier to interchange components. It’s going to speed up research significantly.
I’ve been asked if standardisation will end up monopolising the industry but I think it will be the opposite. It will mean that many companies can make a chip and you can interchange them. It gives more people a chance to compete. Like right now, you can compete, you can work with a supplier to design a new chip. But if, for some reason, you lose that supplier, what are you going to do? Redesign the whole thing?
From an educational perspective, it’s going to be so much easier to build the complex systems and then to show proof of concept devices without actually making a single-purpose chip every time. Cellix has actually gone away from that model. We first thought to make a custom made chip for every customer but that’s not sustainable. You need to make not one chip but hundreds of chips to get some profit from it. If there are standard components then we don’t need to purpose make every chip. We could just interconnect things or add a new variation to the chips. It will mean that making proof of concept devices and prototypes will be way easier.
I really like what the committee is doing. I was sceptical at first but the more I’ve become involved I really feel that they are doing a good job. It’s mainly volunteer work but they’re going to need funding, it’s beneficial for everybody.”