Boundless Innovation

Road sign

How do you go from avoiding traffic accidents to avoiding painful vaccinations?

Admit it. When it comes to hypodermic needles, the bravest of us cringe a little - whether it’s oneself or one’s baby getting an immunisation. But what if getting an injection was nearly painless? Even better, what if needles were nearly invisible?

You might think it impossible, but not so for the ingenious minds of 3M scientists. They have figured out a way to attach hundreds of tiny micro-needles to a surface the size of a 5p piece. And they did it by drawing on sophisticated technology that 3M invented for use in the unlikeliest of places - along main roads.

The technology: Micro-replication. First pioneered in the 1960s, the process involves layering surfaces like plastic sheets with precisely sculpted, cloned shapes. Scientists found these exact, minuscule pyramids, then altered the physical, chemical and optical properties of the plastic surfaces, often in amazing ways.

The results proved nearly magical in the 1980s, when 3M applied the technology to road signs and roads themselves. With thousands of tiny prisms reflecting a car’s headlights back to the driver, signs and markers on main roads and in roadwork's appeared significantly brighter, helping drivers find their way safely.

3M brilliance didn’t stop there. Micro-replication has produced friction-reducing films that help boats move swiftly and aircraft fly more efficiently; brighten computer screens, extending the life of laptop batteries; protect mobile devices from prying eyes with micro-louvers; and now, a device that dermatologists use with their patients prior to procedures or as follow up to the patient’s visit.

The 3M™ Micro-channel Skin System contains a tiny plastic disposable patch, with more than 300 solid micro-needles, allowing dermatologists to create tiny holes in the skin.

From this initial application, 3M scientists are developing micro-needle patches that can be used to deliver vaccines and other critical drugs. Patients might wear these for as little as 10 minutes or even 10 seconds. The patches will even be easy enough for patients to use themselves. Best of all, they could potentially eliminate those painful, and sometimes tearful, injections.

3M knows that little things matter. If micro-needles are any indication, the tinier the 3M innovations get, the bigger the impact.