A Look at Medical Electronics Design and Assembly Challenges
We recently spoke with Dr. Despina Moschou, lecturer at the University of Bath, as well as Kaspars Fricbergs, VP of global quality, and Tom Reilly, director of marketing and sales operations, of EMS firm Vexos Corp., to learn more about the challenges and opportunities in medical electronics design and assembly, as well as the relevant regulatory and supply chain issues.
Stephen Las Marias: Tell us more about yourself, Despina, and your lab-on-a-chip project.
Dr. Despina Moschou: I always start by introducing people to what lab-on-a-chip is in general. Lab-on-a-chip is not my invention—I have to be very clear on that. Professor George Whitesides from Harvard and Professor Andreas Manz first suggested it. They came up with this idea in the mid-1990s. The concept was miniaturizing a complete biomedical laboratory in a microchip. This vision is what we, the scientific community all over the world, have been trying to do for the past 20–30 years.
Before I became involved in this field, my original background was purely electronics. I’m an electronics engineer, I graduated from Athens, and I have a Ph.D. in microelectronics. During my first post-doctoral research, I ran into the field of lab-on-a-chip—in particular, microfluidic devices. Since then, I have been involved in that because the impact of this technology is enormous once it reaches everyday life.
What does this technology do? Imagine if you could have the whole biochemical laboratory on your hand. Wouldn’t that be cool? And apart from being cool, let’s assume we have a biomedical laboratory such as a health-care facility. What do you do when you want to identify a diagnosis? Either you or your doctor will take a sample—such as blood, urine, or any other kind of biological sample—and will take a bottle of it and ship it to a laboratory. The laboratory will do an analysis. It will take a few hours, days, or even weeks, and then you will receive the results. This is the current routine in health-care practice for all kinds of diseases, whether infectious, routine checking, or monitoring your pregnancy or cancer treatment. Wouldn’t it be great if we could avoid all the delays? How different would it be if instead of taking things to the laboratory, we could bring the laboratory to the people who need it.
And because you don’t have to delay, treatment can start immediately. You wouldn’t have to wait. Starting treatment is extremely important for overcoming any kind of disease. It will also have a huge impact in environments and countries where you don’t have access to health-care facilities whatsoever, such as remote islands or low- and middle-income countries where you don’t have access to health-care facilities with laboratories. In all of these cases, having a miniaturized laboratory can make a huge difference. This is roughly the vision of what we are trying to realize with our Research at the University of Bath.
Barry Matties: The technology itself is really interesting because they’re using these miniature micro-pumps to move fluid around, and the idea was to actually incorporate it into the build of the circuit board. And it’s really a game-changer. What’s interesting about this also is it’s one and done, meaning you use it, you throw it away and you buy more. So, from a consumption point of view, millions and millions of units will be sold. And you’ve already had success in creating the lab onboard and doing diagnostics, correct?
Moschou: Yes, we have.
Matties: This really goes with the continued desire for smaller, faster electronics, more affordable, and it’s going to revolutionize the way that medical diagnostics is done.
Moschou: Exactly. What I have been driving for the past few years is trying to implement Lab-on-Chip technology on PCBs. At the moment, and ever since the invention of lab-on-a-chip, every research laboratory in the world has been using their own in-house technique to fabricate those devices. We don’t have lab-on-a-chip technology with one way to manufacture things. In electronics, we have PCBs. We have the standard card that we all use to simulate and design boards, and manufacturers globally that have standardized procedures because this is an industry that’s been around for many years.
In lab-on-a-chip, this is not the case. We are still at the research stage and are gradually transitioning into actual commercialization of devices the past few years. One of the problems delaying this process is that we don’t have factories. We don’t have a lab-on-a-chip factory where I can make something in my lab, design it, and then I can go and get millions of them. This is why I have been trying and persisting on the lab-on-PCB approach because we can actually use the factories that are out there right now fabricating electronic boards and transition into something more advanced—something smaller and more intelligent that can add further functionality to the electronic boards. This time, we can incorporate miniaturized channels to transport the liquids and the fluids that we want to analyze, which are called microfluidic tunnels. We can have analytical biomedical devices on a PCB.
This is not conceptual. I have been presenting for the past few years on the projects and prototypes we have made. We started making things in the lab with PCB technology, but lately, I’ve been working with several manufacturers around the world. I have shown several prototypes for many applications—mainly medical applications—involving DNA and protein detection for different cancer diagnoses. Currently, we are working in the lab on several of the prototypes for diagnosis. It’s a proven concept. It can be done.
Las Marias: Thank you, Despina. Meanwhile, Tom and Kaspars, please tell us more about Vexos and your roles in the company.
Tom Reilly: Sure. My name is Tom Reilly, and I’m the director of marketing and sales operations for Vexos.
Vexos is a full service, high-mix, low- to mid-volume mid-tier electronics manufacturing services (EMS) provider, operating in focus market sectors such as: medical, industrial, semiconductor, automotive, safety, security and industrial internet of things (IIoT) markets. Vexos has a global manufacturing presence with two manufacturing sites in China, Shenzhen and Dongguan along with its North American sites in Markham, Ontario, and LaGrange, Ohio. All sites are ISO-9001 and ISO 13485 certified. We have more than 25 years’ experience in providing a high-level of electronic manufacturing services, value engineering solutions and global supply chain management services that supports all our sites. We are deeply involved with provisioning highly complex, fine-pitch electronics assemblies, electromechanical assemblies, full turnkey solutions and custom mechanical parts.
The medical and life sciences sector is about 10–15% of our business and we currently specialize in manufacturing a number of difference products such as; visual aid, monitoring systems, diagnostics and connectivity-type products. As we grow in this market sector, we continue to meet the needs of our customers through a range of offerings in manufacturing and engineering services. Apart from our electronic services, which include printed circuit board assembly (PCBA), sub-system assemblies, and full box-build product. Our engineering services include design for supply chain (DFSC), design for fabrication (DFF), design for manufacturability (DFM), design for test (DFT), and complementary development services.
It’s important to mention we work very closely with our customers and partners and some of the companies are world-renowned corporations, who rely on these high-level services. We also worked with smaller, localized companies to help develop and bring their products to market.
As I mentioned, we work very closely with customers and provide them with value engineering support in the early stages of product development, from quick-turn prototyping to new product introduction, right through to full mass production, whether that be localized within one of our North American facilities or one of our China facilities for a more low-cost, high-volume region. These facilities also give our customers the opportunity to launch products into the market as well.
Kaspars Fricbergs: I am the VP of quality for Vexos. I’m based in the Toronto facility, and I’m responsible for the coordination of the quality functions across the various Vexos locations. I’ve been with the organization and its predecessors for about 17 years now. I have a long background in quality in electronics and electromechanical devices, including experience in the medical realm as well. We’re ISO-13485 registered at all our manufacturing facilities, as well as ISO 9001 certified. In China, we are IATF 16949 registered in one of our facilities; and both of our facilities have ISO-14001 and OSHAS 18001 registrations as well.
Las Marias: Earlier on, Despina was telling us about her problems and challenges when it comes to the lab on a PCB. From your perspective as an EMS provider covering the medical electronics industry, what are some of the top challenges you’re seeing in this sector?
Fricbergs: There are a number of challenges associated with the field. I was about to say one of the top ones is the regulatory regime in medical devices. We are an EMS company, so we’re not design responsible, and we don’t do product submissions to the FDA; but there are a whole host of regulations surrounding the manufacture of the products that need to be met. Those are largely covered by the ISO 13485 registration, but there are also the regulatory regimes of the FDA and other local, jurisdictional regulations. In Canada, we would need to deal with Health Canada requirements as well for any products that would be marketed and sold in Canada.
The ISO 13485 certification largely covers the specific requirements that the FDA has outlined in their Quality System Regulation, 21 CFR Part 820, although there are some differences. You also have FDA regulations surrounding the use of software and the compliance of software, that’s 21 CFR Part 11. You have specific requirements for documentation, validation, traceability, validation of process, validation of software, medical device files, and medical device histories. All of that has to be in place to provide the level of assurance to regulatory authorities and to our customers that we produced the product properly according to the processes that have been defined. Some of those requirements go beyond and are different than those of other industries.
Another challenge that we often run into is simply the time to market. Often, customers can come with an immature design. It may not be manufacturable, so Vexos can help in those cases. We offer design for assembly feedback services and design for test feedback services, that can help make the products manufacturable and bring the product to market faster. Sometimes with new product launches, because our customers don’t have a strong view of the manufacturing process, they come with an idea, they may have a design that’s been provided that may not be manufacturable. Or they may not have explored all the regulatory regimes and may not be clear on what requirements they may specifically have for quality.
We’ll work with them on that, but again, a typical challenge is simply the time to market. Usually, when a design and concept have been firmed up and there’s some backing for it, the desire is to quickly get it out to market, or at least get it into the approvals stage from a regulatory point of view.
Those are some of the bigger challenges we have. Of course, we have to have a very strong eye on the product’s quality and make sure we’re complying with all the requirements and regulations in order to avoid any situation that’s going to affect our customers.
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Vexos, is a mid-size global Electronics Manufacturing Services (EMS) and Custom Material Solutions (CMS) company, providing complete end-to-end supply chain management solutions in electronic and mechanical products for Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and new emerging technology companies.
Vexos services extend over the entire electronic product life cycle, from value engineering services for product development to prototyping and New Product Introduction (NPI) through to the growth, maturity and end-of-life phases with a strong focus and commitment to quality and customer service satisfaction.
With facilities in United States, Canada and China Vexos can efficiently compete in today’s marketplace, primarily focus within automotive, industrial, networking, communication, medical and security market segments. Vexos enables their customers to focus on their core business, reduce your cost, speed your time-to-market and gain a competitive advantage.