From Lab to Market
Already, Boston Micro Fabrication – a manufacturer of microstereolithography 3D-printers – has been spun out of Fang’s research. Early adopters of this type of technology include the electronic and biomedical industries. The technology is also promising for the production of tissue cultures and biomaterials, but entering this market, which is more complicated and highly regulated, will take longer.
According to Prof. Fang, a whole ecosystem has to come together to mature bioprinting technologies and bring them to market. Developments in biomaterials and hardware are needed.
In particular, when it comes to DLP technology, higher light intensities and larger build areas would help bring bioprinting closer to commercialization.
“More light intensity will enable exotic polymer systems that use a very small fraction of photo cross-linkers,” Fang says.
Photo cross-linkers – or photoinitiators – are the chemical components triggering the photopolymerization reaction when exposed to light. The quantity of photo cross-linker needed to complete the photopolymerization for successful 3D-printing depends on the intensity of the light source. When light intensity increases, smaller fractions of photo crosslinkers can be used. This is especially critical for bioprinting, because photo cross-linkers can lead to intermediary reactions and byproducts that are harmful to cells. Using a DLP projector with higher light intensity can overcome the formation of these byproducts and open up for printing living materials containing cells.
Larger build areas would enable users to print microstructures in quantity, thereby reducing the cost of production. In order to achieve larger build areas, DLP projectors will need more pixels than most currently have. Alternatively, it may be possible to use several projectors in conjunction, Fang says.
Another innovation Fang would like to see is printers that use near-infrared light waves, which would enable the development of monitoring systems for living cells. Broadening the spectrum to include more light wavelengths could also enable machine vision, which would allow scientists to accurately measure the contour and height of structures being printed and minimize bending and pulling in sensitive junctures.
Some of these capabilities already exist. In 2020, In-Vision launched Helios, the most powerful UV DLP projector on the market, with up to 12 Watt of output power. The company’s 4K light engine Phoenix was designed to allow several projectors to be stacked next to each other to cover a larger build area.
The further DLP printing advances, the closer researchers become to making Fang’s futuristic-sounding applications real.
“As we learn to control light and waves better, we can unlock many new capabilities,” Fang said. “Regenerative medicine, tissue engineering, the manufacturing of stem cells, cell therapy – the possibilities are very exciting.”