How to think like a futurist: Microfluidics

The world never stops changing, and it’s the job of a futurist to stay ahead of change and prepare for the future. Anyone can be a futurist by paying attention to trends and embracing the constant shifts in society and technology. As futurists, we can take advantage of opportunities to lead, innovate, and build a better future.

In this new series, we will look through the lens of a futurist to explore some of the exciting technologies and trends bound to shape our future lives.

Ready to think like a futurist? Let’s dive into microfluidics.

Step 1: What is microfluidics?

In short, microfluidics is the ability to work with tiny amounts of fluid and at great precision. Printing is an excellent example of that. Over the last 30 years, HP has perfected the art of placing very small amounts of fluid in exact locations on a page to create printing. The technology behind this is microfluidics.

We are talking here about manipulating fluids that are a fifth the size of a human cell and a thousand times smaller than a raindrop. Hence the name microfluidics, and of course, microfluidics isn’t something that is only applied to printing. There are a lot of fluids in the world, including within our bodies. From life sciences to agriculture to healthcare, microfluidics has a whole host of existing and potential applications.

Step 2: Trendspotting

Did you know that someone is added to the US national organ transplant waiting list every nine minutes? Along with many other sobering statistics, that fact showcases the immense need for innovation within biotech, and microfluidics may be the solution.

Recent advancements from the Stevens’ Schaefer School of Engineering & Science have found a way to accelerate the creation of 3D-printed organs. Led by associate professor Robert Chang, these researchers hope to use microfluidics to achieve a more precise and controllable method for 3D-printing organs. By creating a microfluidics-enabled 3D printer, researchers could more accurately print organs at the scale of human cells. Microfluidics can also utilize multiple “bio-inks,” allowing for the reproduction of any type of tissue and opening exciting new avenues for healthcare technology.

Another healthcare innovation using microfluidics is these wearable sweat sensors. Using paper-based microfluidics, these sensors can measure various chemicals, drugs, and hormones in sweat. The information gathered from these sensors could help diagnose several health issues, from cardio-renal disease to cystic fibrosis.

Step 3: Opportunity knocks

As startups and scientists continue to explore the potential behind microfluidics, the technology will become further refined and precise, leading to more opportunities within healthcare and diagnostic tech.

One such company is Fluigent, which aims to develop more advanced fluid control systems. Doing so could help accelerate the development of new medicines, therapeutic treatments, vaccines, and more. By introducing pressure pumps to its microfluidics chips, Fluigent could achieve complete control of flow rates, allowing for much higher precision. HP Labs is also exploring microfluidics and its many uses, such as cancer detection.

Due to the rising demand for point-of-care diagnostics and other microfluidics technologies, the global microfluidics market is expected to be worth $43 billion by 2027. Though microfluidics technology could be applied across several industries, the healthcare industry will likely see the most significant impact. After the effects of COVID-19, healthcare has received more attention than ever, specifically diagnostic technologies enabled by microfluidics.

Let’s also look at food and water contamination. One in 10 people suffer and fall ill from food contamination every year. One in four people lacks access to safe drinking water. But how do they know? Today these tests for contaminated food and water need to be sent into a central lab facility with large and expensive equipment, and it takes days to get results back. But what if all of us could carry something in our pocket that could in real-time test whether the food we’re eating or the water we’re drinking is safe? That’s the power of microfluidics.  

When I think of microfluidics, I believe it’s very similar now to how computing was 50 years ago. Fifty years ago, we had these vast mainframe computers in central facilities. If you wanted to use them, you’d mail in punch cards that got processed, and you’d need to wait days for the result. Microprocessors changed all of that, effectively shrinking a mainframe down into a PC or a phone to democratize access to computing. Today microfluidics promises to do the same for healthcare and life sciences, taking large centralized and expensive lab equipment and shrinking it down to a lab-on-a-chip, enabling a world where everyone can have a “lab” on their desk or in their pocket, and providing everyone with access to instant disease diagnostics or personalized treatment information.

Microfluidics technology will change our world, from how we diagnose illnesses to how we heal people. Beyond healthcare, the technology could reinvent food science or even space travel! Microfluidics is likely to significantly improve our future lives, and futurists must look for opportunities to embrace and contribute to this technology.

Now it’s your turn: How do you think microfluidics will change our world?

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Answers to 4D Printing’s Top Questions

Did you know the 4D printing industry is expected to be worth upwards of $537 million by 2025 and grow by a CAGR of 42.95% between 2019 and 2025? This is being driven by the need to reduce the costs of manufacturing and processing in the face of an increasing focus to ensure a sustainable environment. Today, I’m diving into the top 4 questions about 4D printing:

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  1. What is the difference between 3D and 4D printing?

    4D printing is similar to 3D printing since it uses the same techniques of computer-programmed “printing” of layered materials to create a three-dimensional object. However, during the fabrication process of 4D printing, the printed produce reacts to external stimuli — heat, water, chemical, pressure, etc. — to self-assemble or change

    It’s a further evolution of 3D printing and is set to completely alter how we create and produce materials by adding the dimension of transformation over time into the creation process.
  2. How does 4D printing work?

    4D printing involves 3D printing objects that can self-assemble and transform based on some external stimuli. For example, a table that assembles itself when you touch a part, or an airplane wing that transforms with wind speed, or a temperature-activated cardio stent.

    In order to make something “4D” — assemble itself or change precisely under certain conditions — a precise geometric code is used based on the object’s angles and dimensions, as well as measurements that dictate how it should change shape when interacting with outside forces.

    It’s all about self-assembly. The ability to program a particular area of the material and be able to activate it through heat, water, chemical reaction, pressure and many other external influences to actually do self-assembly. Altogether these represent what I believe will be the next industrial revolution and a fundamental transformation in manufacturing overall.

  3. What is 4D printing used for?

    4D printing technology is not merely a novelty, but a necessity due to increasing urbanization caused by world population growth that is expected to reach 8 billion people over the next 30 years. This will cause an increase in “megacities — or cities with populations over 10 million people — from 10 in 1990 to 41 over the next ten years. This rapid urbanization will put an incredible demand on manufacturing and the distribution of materials.

    Numerous organizations are pouring money in 4D printing research and development, including Airbus SAS who is using 4D-related “smart” material that reacts to temperature to cool jet engines and a wing that morphs according to aerodynamic conditions to decrease air resistance. Briggs Automotive Company is developing a morphable wing for its supercar that can adjust to external weather conditions and automatically adjust itself to provide maximum downforce to the car.

    As many of you know, I am a drone aficionado. When I saw this research, I was excited. Engineers at Rutgers University–New Brunswick are fabricating smart materials in 4D that will transform according to their environment. This leads to shock-absorbing materials that will change as needed for use in aircraft or drone design for parts like wings that need to self-alter for varying performance.

    4D printing will also have a profound impact on healthcare of the future. It could be used for tissue engineering, self-assembling human-scale biomaterials, design of nanoparticles, and nanorobots for chemotherapy.

    It doesn’t stop there. You’ll see 4D printing transform and disrupt a variety of industries including consumer products, healthcare, automotive, construction, and aerospace

Overall, how 4D printing evolves in the future is up to the innovators and makers of the world. We must remain open to fresh ideas, new tools, and collaboration from all industries

ICYMI: Answers to Industry 4.0’s Top Questions

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How AI is transforming healthcare

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Artificial intelligence (AI) will make a direct and immense impact on the healthcare field. Technology has already improved diagnostic accuracy, drug delivery, and patients’ medical records, and AI will only add to those breakthroughs. AI can mine medical records, design personalized treatment plans, handle administrative tasks to free up medical providers’ time for more meaningful tasks, and assist with medication management.

AI has already made headway in medicine, helping to do everything from processing x-ray images and detecting cancer to assisting doctors in diagnosing and treating patients. In fact, the global AI healthcare market is expected to reach $22,790 million by 2023.

And the general public is on board. According to a recent survey, 47% of people were comfortable with AI assisting doctors in the operating room. More than half of respondents over age 40 were willing to go under the knife with the help of technology, compared with only 40% under age 40. Additionally, six in ten participants (61%) were comfortable with their doctor using data from wearable devices, such as an Apple Watch or Fitbit, to assess their lifestyle and make recommendations based on that data.

So what healthcare areas will AI have an impact on in the next five to ten years?

Mining medical records

In our current age of big data, patient data is valuable. Often times, patients’ files are unorganized and mining their records to extract necessary medical insights can be a great challenge.

David Lindsay, founder of Philadelphia-based start-up, Oncora Medical, realized this struggle in radiation therapy. He and his team built a data analytics platform that helps doctors design sound radiation treatment plans for patients, personalizing each one based on their specific characteristics and medical history.

Virtual healthcare providers

AI is being used to detect emotional health issues as well. x2 developed a mental health chatbot, Tess, that delivers on-demand, psychological support. Tess coaches you through tough times to build resilience, by having text message conversations — in the same way a therapist would. The coping strategies Tess delivers are based on the emotions and concerns you express in your conversations.

Beyond Verbal is another example of a company utilizing AI to track emotional well-being. The emotions analytics company, developed a vocal biomarker to potentially help patients and their providers recognize patterns and better understand their healthcare needs.

Sensly boosts, Molly, a virtual health care assistant which dynamically generates speech, receives images and videos, and offers complete remote monitoring, with support for the common and high-cost conditions.

Drug development

Clinical trials can take more than a decade and cost millions of dollars. AI can play a part in speeding up the process of drug development, along with making it more cost effective.

GSK, a company that researches, develops, and manufactures innovative pharmaceutical medicines, vaccines, and consumer healthcare products, is active applying AI to its drug discovery arm. In fact, it created an in-house AI unit called “Medicines Discovered Using Artificial Intelligence.” In 2017, the company announced a partnership with Insilico, to identify novel biological targets and pathways.

Overall, AI can assist healthcare providers in managing their patients’ care more efficiently. I don’t believe AI will take healthcare jobs, but instead transform them. AI will provide the opportunity for healthcare works to take on higher impact jobs or at least offload their less desirable workload. AI will create growth and introduce more opportunities for the human workforce. It has the potential to automate mundane tasks, allowing humans to spend more time on more important tasks. If they can collaborate with the human workforce in hospitals and doctors’ offices, it will take care of the most important aspect of healthcare — improving patients’ experiences.

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Nicholas Negroponte: A 30-year History of the Future

Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab, pushes the edge of the information revolution as an inventor, thinker and angel investor.

In this TED talk, Negroponte recounts the last 30 years of technology. He highlights his predictions from the 1970s and 80s that were originally dismissed, but are ubiquitous today. He also leaves us with a fascinating prediction – we will ingest information through our blood stream in the future.

Ingestibles are especially intriguing to me because it’s a technology that has the potential to be transformational. We are moving from a world where we carry technology, to a world where we wear technology, and more recently to a world where we can now ingest it. At this point, I don’t think we’re far off from Negroponte’s prediction becoming a reality.

READ ALSO: Fitness Wearables Not Fit For Your Wrist

In fact, healthcare-focused ingestibles have already hit the market. The FDA-approved Proteus pill uses a one-square-millimeter sensor to transmit important information about your health to your doctor or family member. Upon swallowing, the sensor is activated by electrolytes within the body. The pill then transmits a signal to a small patch worn on your torso and sends the data via Bluetooth to a designated smartphone.

When you think of this pill by itself, it may seem like a novelty, but when you consider the strides made in wearables and ingestibles along with the convergence of consumer products and specialized medical devices, it’s inevitable that we’re going to experience a structural change in our healthcare system.

I want to hear your predictions. How do you think ingestibles will be used in the future?

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