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MIT Develops Tiny Sensors to Monitor Manufacturing Processes as They Happen

Posted By Jeff Moad, August 19, 2013 at 3:19 PM, in Category: Factories of the Future

Scientists at MIT are reporting progress on using billions of nanoscale sensors to monitor and improve drug manufacturing processes as they take place.

The discovery could help pharmaceutical companies get much more efficient at producing new drugs capable of attacking cancers and other diseases. It could also serve as an example of how sensors can be directly embedded into other manufacturing processes to improve quality and throughput.

The MIT scientists, in a paper recently published in the journal ACSNano, said they had succeeded in using arrays of sensors based on carbon nanotubes to better understand the variations in the binding strength of antibody drugs which are used to treat cancer, among other diseases. The scientists also discovered that the sensor arrays can be used to understand which cells among many genetically-engineered cells are the most productive at creating a desired drug.

Carbon nanotubes are being used in a wide variety of applications. At the recent Manufacturing Leadership Summit, Peter Antoinette, president and chief executive officer of Nanocomp Technologies Inc., said his start-up company is producing unusually long carbon nanotubes to create strong and elastic materials for aerospace and automotive applications.

Described as 50,000 times thinner than a human hair, types of carbon nanotubes are also able to bind to proteins that recognize a specific target molecule. According to a recent MIT report on the discovery, “When the target is present, it alters the fluorescent signal produced by the nanotube in a way that scientists can detect.”

Using this characteristic of the carbon nanotubes, the MIT researchers said they were able to monitor and measure the ability of complex proteins such as antibodies to bind to target cells. Although these binding qualities are critically important to making drugs that effectively target and fight disease, currently drug companies must use expensive and time-consuming processes to test each batch to determine its binding effectiveness.

“The new MIT sensor could make this process much faster, allowing researchers to not only better monitor and control production, but also to fine-tune the manufacturing process to generate a more consistent product.”

By being able to monitor drug production processes as they take place, researchers would also gain a greater understanding of which types of cells and which conditions most productively generate the antibodies and other drugs being sought.

The MIT discovery may signal a trend toward the use of sensors to monitor many types of manufacturing processes as they occur, not just pharmaceutical production. Manufacturers of many different types of products—from airplanes to heavy duty trucks--have been integrating into these products sensors that monitor performance in the field. But what if manufacturers could also build directly into manufacturing systems and processes advanced sensors that could monitor quality as production takes place?

Makers of semiconductors or turbine blades, for example, could gain a better understanding of the conditions under which quality and yields are highest. They could also potentially reduce expensive and time-consuming post-production testing.

What do you think? Have you started to see examples of advanced sensors being used to monitor production processes in real time? What applications can you imagine for this type of technology?

Written by Jeff Moad

Jeff Moad is Research Director and Executive Editor with the Manufacturing Leadership Community. He also directs the Manufacturing Leadership Awards Program. Follow our LinkedIn Groups: Manufacturing Leadership Council and Manufacturing Leadership Summit

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