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What's the Big Deal with Miniaturization?

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By: Emily Warner,
Research Engineer, bb7


Miniaturization is a powerful innovation tool utilized in
nearly every industry. The basic concept of miniaturization is taking something
and making it smaller. Sounds simple, right? It's easy to assume that
miniaturization merely involves scaling a component's dimensions down to create
a smaller component. Sure, this scalar shrinking can work up to a point; but
this approach breaks down when the fabrication processes and/or materials are
incompatible with the miniaturized component.

To illustrate limits to miniaturization, take a piece of
paper and fold it in half. You reduced your writing space by 50% through the
process of folding. If you keep folding the paper in half, eventually you will
be unable to fold the paper anymore. At that point the folding process breaks
down. To make that piece of paper even smaller, you must change the process. At
this point, you need to try a new process: break out your trusty scissors and
cut the folded paper in half. The size of the paper is still reduced, but
through a different method. The original method, folding, eventually broke down
and a new process, cutting, became necessary to continue. If only product
miniaturization were so easy!
While oversimplified, the process of miniaturizing that
piece of paper illustrates the driving force behind many innovative
miniaturization methods.



Reducing the size of individual components to make a smaller
overall product is a straightforward concept. However, the implementation is often
more complex. When components are reduced in size, the whole system can be
affected. The connections (or communication) between the component and other
pieces of the system could change. Imagine taking a gear of a watch and
changing its size. The altered gear is not going to fit with the other gears of
the watch. To make it fit, the surrounding pieces will also need to be altered.
In the case of miniaturized electronic components, associated changes can
include signal output, board mounting and interface alterations.
The influence of one component on the overall system is
often extensive, and adapting the original design to incorporate miniaturized
components requires a fair amount of time and effort.
Mechanical Systems (MEMS)
have spurred major advancements in electronics
miniaturization. MEMS are extremely small mechanical or electro-mechanical
systems. Imagine a system of gears that is smaller than a dust mite but
produces an electrical signal that can be detected by the larger system. For
perspective, see the next image (below) where a MEMS is compared to a human
hair. In general, MEMS can be categorized as structures, sensors, actuators, or
microelectronics, and thus can be utilized for a wide variety of applications
in almost every industry.
has also paved the way for miniaturization. Through the
development of new chemistries, manufacturers have been able to pack more power
into a fixed space. This allows for either a longer battery life in the same
footprint or reduction in the size of the battery while retaining the same life
as the original. Additional flexibility in battery geometry also permits the
design of smaller products.
Battery geometry can be tailored to utilize available space,
unlike traditional bulky batteries which forced the product to be designed to
accommodate them.
Much like the mobile phone, data storage has experienced
major improvements with miniaturization. Movies used to be stored on film and
in relatively large VHS and Beta tapes. Now, physical copies of movies are
stored digitally on DVD and Blu-ray discs, which in turn are being supplanted
by streaming services. Data storage for PC's and other devices has followed a
similar path, to USB flash drives and SD cards. The Micro-SD cards are a far
cry from floppy disks. Not only has the footprint of the data storage device
been drastically reduced, but the storage within a given footprint has
skyrocketed. To store 1GB of data on 1.44MB 3.5' floppy disks you would need
729 disks! A 1 GB storage capability is considered small by today's standards,
where 32GB and 64GB SD cards are commonplace.

There are many examples where miniaturization of a product
is not focused on shrinking the size of individual components within a product
package, but rather combining
. In these cases, multiple components with historically
independent functions are combined to save space within the product. For
example, capacitive touchscreen technology has allowed for the combination of
the keyboard and display in smart phones. A smart phone itself is a combination
of several previously independent devices, merging the functions of a phone,
PC, personal organizer, media player, camera, gaming console and GPS.

Outsourcing shifts functionality from the physical hardware
of a device into software. Outsourcing was initially done by adding more
intelligence to the devices themselves. The rapidly expanding market of
internet-ready devices has enabled additional computational power and
intelligence to be outsourced to remote servers.
Instead of doing all the computation on its own, a connected
device can send and receive data from a larger computing system possessing the
hardware that would otherwise take up space in the device.
For example, the popular music identification app Shazam allows a user to record a snippet of
an unknown song on their device and upload it to the Shazam system. Once
uploaded, Shazam compares the unknown song to a comprehensive database of
songs. If a match is found, Shazam sends the song info to the user's device.
While the phone sends and receives data, the analysis (and the robust database
and computing power required) is 'outsourced'
to Shazam.
Outsourcing is also applied to data storage. Data can be
uploaded to that famous 'cloud,' where it is stored and managed on remote
servers. More and more companies (e.g. Netflix, Google and Dropbox) base their
business model on leveraging cloud technology. These companies offer services
for managing personal and enterprise content. Our devices, files and libraries
have all shrunk because of outsourced data storage.
Rather than a single large server network, small computing
tasks can be distributed to many independent devices to accomplish a larger
objective. The Samsung
Power Sleep
application allows individual mobile devices to assist in
global scientific research led by the University of Vienna. Users donate mobile
power while they sleep as small packets of data are received by their phones to
perform calculations on. Results are returned to research lab servers before
app users awake, harnessing the vast network of computing power in idle smart
phones to help scientists solve problems. Currently, the app is being used for comparing
sequences. The University will release the results via an open
source (free access) database, available to scientists worldwide for use in a
wide range of scientific endeavors, including disease treatment and prevention.



Miniaturization has had a far-reaching influence on many
different industries, but one of the biggest benefactors is the communication
industry. Thirty-two years ago, one of the first commercially available cell
phones, the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, hit the market. Measuring 13 x 1.75 x 3.5
inches and weighing in at 1.76 pounds, the only thing it could do was make
calls. An average
smart phone from 2015
measured 5.8 x 2.9 x 0.34 inches, weighed 0.34
pounds, and was packed with enough functionality to provide multiple
communication platforms, entertainment, internet access, and so much more. This
transformation was achieved through miniaturization, and it has fundamentally
changed the way that we interact daily.


The medical industry has also reaped the benefits of

One of the main drivers is the need to make portable,
patient-friendly equipment. X-ray machines were historically installed in a
dedicated room, but are now small enough to fit on a cart that can be wheeled
to patients' rooms.

Improvements in portability have allowed for more treatments
to be administered outside of a traditional clinical setting. Patients are now
able to take treatments home that historically would have required weeks of

To that end, bb7 partnered with Bellerophon to develop the INOpulse Mark2
device, currently in clinical trials. This medical device is a miniaturized,
portable version of a larger predicate device. It delivers nitric oxide to
patients to treat the symptoms of pulmonary hypertension. Initial devices that
used this technology were on a wheeled cart, while the Mark2 weighs 2.5 pounds
and is about the size of a paperback book.

On an even smaller scale, Nano-Robotic
is being developed to aid in medical diagnosis and treatment.
One application under development plans to inject tiny machines into the
bloodstream that will selectively deliver treatments directly to diseased
tissues. Technology like this will allow more intelligent, patient-specific
treatment options that may lead to better outcomes.


Like the communication industry, the automotive industry has
embarked on a radical transformation. The industry is shifting from 'simply'
manufacturing vehicles to creating the much-publicized self-driving cars.
Already, cars are self-diagnosing smart vehicles that double as multimedia
entertainment systems and personal navigators. The automotive industry has
always added 'bells and whistles' to high-end automobiles but, with the help of
miniaturization, an increasing number of features can be included in standard
vehicles, including smart headlights and Bluetooth connectivity.

Driven by gas mileage and consumer demand, weight is a
critical factor of vehicle design. Miniaturization has provided the industry
with the small, light components which make it possible for some car models to
have features like automated parallel parking and blind spot monitoring. And
those self-driving
that will forever change the industry and our lives? An achievable
reality ' thanks to miniaturization innovation.

About the Author: Emily
Warner is an Associate Research Engineer at bb7,
a product development firm. She studied Biomedical Engineering with an emphasis
in musculoskeletal biomechanics at the University of Iowa. Her work within
product development is diverse and includes everything from competitive
analysis of consumer goods to improving the performance of medical devices. She
has worked on products in every stage of product development from the initial
ideation sessions through product performance evaluation. Emily leverages her
extensive knowledge to bridge the gap between engineering and medicine.

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