Electronic miniaturization is in the industry forefront today as medical device companies continue to push the envelope to make their implants smaller and less invasive, according to Jim Ohneck, director of sales and marketing at Valtronic USA, a company specializing in miniaturized electronic design and assembly. How small are these devices? Ohneck says a device two millimeters in diameter and one millimeter in length can contain an entire electronic assembly: "It's part of a move in the medical industry to make devices smaller and more compatible for the end user."
New trends are emerging in the electronic packaging industry, including so-called bare die packaging techniques such as COB or FC within a folded flex or flex-rigid design. They give the designer considerably more space in which to work, usually resulting in smaller size and more features. That typically improves the performance of the device, Ohneck points out.
All components within the electronic assembly are made biocompatible, and radio frequency capability is added so the implant can collect information and transmit it to the outside world. In addition to making existing devices smaller, another trend is to manufacture electronic drug delivery devices the size of a tiny pill that are implanted or swallowed. Biocompatibility is very important here, as is the ability to survive in a harsh environment such as the stomach.
Manufacturers are also seeking new ways to power small circuits, including powering implants from outside the body. In addition, they're putting more electronic features on products.
When it comes to small, there's nothing smaller on the medical front than nanotechnology. Probing still deeper into the microscopic world, it's the science that deals with the making and understanding of extremely small materials. These improve products by making them more cost effective or easier to use, according to Bruce Gibbins, Ph.D., chairman and CTO of AcryMed, a medical research and manufacturing firm that uses nanotechnology.
"One of the main benefits of nanotechnology is miniaturization," he says. "The first battery-powered pacemaker was about the size of a dishwasher and had to be transported on casters. Now, a dozen pacemakers fit into the palm of the hand."
Gibbins cites applications of nanotechnology in several medical-related industries:
• Electronics: Nanotechnology is used to make smaller and smaller components. By definition, things that fall into nanotech's realm are those less than 100 nanometers in their largest dimension. A particle of this diameter is less than 1/7,000 the size of an object visible to the human eye. For comparison, one inch contains around 25 million nanometers. "We may eventually be able to see a single atom," he says.
• Health care: Nanotechnology leads to devices able to deliver drugs where they're needed in the system, across cell membranes without harming cells.
• Diagnostics: Nanotechnology is used to improve product diagnostic testing. Some prototypes are being tested in which a single drop of blood flowing through miniature channels in credit-card size devices pass over nanodots of detector chemicals. The nanodots are able to screen for more than 1,000 different markers of disease. The results, interpreted by a computer reader, may identify abnormalities long before clinical symptoms are present in the patient.
In addition, medical devices are already being marketed that use nanotechnology to help them resist microbial infection.
"Nanotechnology was once only a concept of science fiction but now it's proving to be a key component of our everyday lives," says Gibbins.