By taking existing technologies and reimagining them within a new context, scientists and manufacturers are able to produce innovative solutions to many everyday problems. For example, the efforts of a professor from the University of Washington, the Optiva Corporation, and Morgan Electro Ceramics have yielded a ground-breaking toothbrush that harnesses the power of ultrasound technology.
Innovative products, like the new Ultreo Ultrasound Toothbrush, begin with a pioneering spirit and a creative idea. Dr. Pierre Mourad, a research associate professor with the University of Washington’s Department of Neurological Surgery, had been discouraged by the cleaning ability of his ordinary power toothbrush. He wondered if ultrasound could transform ordinary bubbles into pulsating bubbles to help remove plaque bacteria and produce a deep, long-lasting clean feeling.
To transform this revolutionary idea into a commercial consumer product, Mourad joined forces in 2003 with Jack Gallagher, the former president of Optiva Corporation (developers of Sonicare). As an entrepreneur in oral health, Gallagher recognized an opportunity to re-energize the power toothbrush category with an entirely new technology.
Together, Mourad and Gallagher forged the way for Ultreo, a toothbrush that combines the innovative power of ultrasound (higher frequency sound waves that humans cannot hear) with established sonic technology, to create the first major advance in toothbrush technology in 15 years. The ultrasonic soundwaves are generated by a specially-designed piezoceramic transducer, designed in conjunction with and supplied by Morgan Electro Ceramics (MEC).
In September 2007, Ultreo received a U.S. patent for its ultrasound waveguide, which is specifically designed to efficiently channel ultrasound energy from the transducer in the brush head directly into the millions of air bubbles generated by the sonic bristle action. The precisely-tuned ultrasonic waves agitate the air bubbles, causing them to expand and contract. The expansion and contraction of the bubbles dislodge and disrupt any present plaque bacteria. Clinical studies show that Ultreo can remove up to 95 percent of plaque within the first minute of brushing. It can also produce naturally whiter teeth in 14 days and improve gum health in 30 days.
The Engineering Challenge
The biggest challenge, according to Gallagher, now CEO of Ultreo, Inc., was the engineering. “We could not simply buy a ready-made ultrasonic transducer,” he
stated. “We needed to design and construct a transducer specific to our particular application, a process that required two years of constant experimentation and refinement. Moreover, a great deal of research went into the material composition and the shape of the ultrasound waveguide.”
To meet the engineering challenge, Ultreo chose to team up with Morgan Electro Ceramics. MEC was selected as the transducer supplier of choice at an early stage of involvement because of the depth and breadth of the company’s expertise regarding piezoelectric materials and applications.
“We needed a materials and transducer vendor willing to partner with us to quickly work through multiple design iterations,” said Ultreo project manager, Doug Bradeen. “We also chose MEC because of the wide range of piezoelectric materials they offer and their proven ability to manufacture high volumes of multilayered diced components. We needed a transducer vendor who could support our rapid growth.”
A MEC high-drive, “hard” lead zirconate titanate (PZT) ceramic was selected for the application. It optimizes transducer efficiency, maximizes ultrasound output and keeps heat generation to an absolute minimum (a critical requirement in a fully-sealed, non-cooled device) to enhance in-service reliability.
The transducer comprises multiple layers of active PZT material, plus an additional material that focuses the ultrasound. MEC was able to develop processes to reliably bond these layers together, while bringing all electrical connections to the top surface of the device. This special configuration was needed in order to ease the assembly requirements at the Ultreo production facility in Redmond, WA. At the same time, these design changes had to be constrained by requirements for mass-manufacturing volumes and reducing cost.
High Volume Manufacturing
“The ultrasonic transducer is the heart of our product,” said Bradeen. “We needed a high-performance technical solution that delivers the power of ultrasound to a consumer toothbrush. But we also needed a manufacturing capability that could cost-effectively deliver the volume that we needed, when we needed it. Controlling the cost of the transducer is critical, because it is a major cost factor in the brush head, a replaceable part. We need to offer brush head replacements to the consumer at an attractive price, while maintaining good profit margins.”
The partnership between the researchers at the University of Washington, the former executives of Optiva Corporation, and the piezoelectric ceramics experts at MEC has proven to be successful. Ultreo began selling its toothbrushes to dental offices in March 2007, and has moved to high-end retail outlets such as Drugstore.com, Amazon.com, Sharper Image, Frontgate, Hammacher, Macys, Linens & Things, Bloomingdales, and Bartell Drugs.