Everything changes when working in high precision manufacturing. You can’t measure most feature sizes with standard  calipers and quantum effects come into play when dealing with light or fluids on micron-level spatial scales. That is why companies like Potomac Photonics, Inc. in Baltimore, Maryland play an important role in getting new small products to market, especially for the microfluidics and bio-tech industries.

Biologists and chemists may be able to demonstrate proof of concept in their labs, but the transition to high volume manufacturing requires prototyping a model that can be economically and practically produced at high quantities. The process does not happen in isolation and requires knowledge of manufacturing processes to ensure success which is complicated by small-scale products.

Product design must take into account the needs, wants, and desires of the end user. And if the new variation is replacing an older option, then it must exceed customer expectations. End users are an integral component of getting a prototype right. Iterate a prototype to the point where it exceeds market expectations, and sales roll in.

Prototyping as a Team

Prototyping is an iterative process between the inventor, end user, and manufacturing partner. Explains Potomac CEO, Mike Adelstein, “We all have to leave our egos at the door and work together to solve customer’s toughest challenges. Really listening to the customer and end user requirements is the first order of business and ensures we innovate to get the first prototypes right quickly within the reality of fabrication constraints. Prototype – test with end user – collect feedback – redesign – repeat is the process that yields true results. In today’s fast-paced world, being first to market with a product that delights customers makes for a successful product launch and enduring success. And you can only achieve that going through the hard, tedious prototyping process.”

Operating in a Micro World

Working with manufacturing experts who know the pitfalls of Design for Manufacturing is key in bringing a product to market but even more so when delving into the world of micro-manufacturing. Between chip-scale and large-scale sizes lie a world of micro-scale projects. Many medical device and micro-electronics projects fall into this category.

Potomac usually fabricates features in the 1 – 200 micro range which has a unique set of challenges. These include:
Choosing the right tool for the job. Not every fabrication tool can create the feature sizes needed for micro-fabrication and even then, other considerations like material, speed, cut quality, etc. determine choosing the right tool for the job. While many designers are excited by the possibilities of 3D Printing while in the prototyping stage, the realities of the technology’s speed limitations require a manufacturing partner with as vast knowledge of production tools like micro-molding for high volume manufacturing.

Measurement. Laser or CNC drilled holes of a few microns in diameter with ½ micron accuracy placement need extra precise measurement to ensure meeting end user specs. Potomac’s automated inspection software exponentially increases measurement speed leading to faster turnaround.

Innovating a New Micro-Manufacturing Paradigm. While the process from idea to prototype to finished product being run in the millions is well-documented, I feel it cannot be reiterated enough how important each step in the Design to Manufacturing process is to success. Micro products like microfluidics take the process even further with specialized needs due to small spatial scales, driving manufacturing to higher levels of innovation that create a new micro-manufacturing paradigm.

Full disclosure: Sarah Boisvert was a co-founder of Potomac Photonics which she and her partners sold in 1999.