More medical devices are being designed with electronic components that enhance the overall functionality and/or efficiency of the product. It is interesting to theorize where these electronics may take healthcare. For this month's Perspectives, we received a large number of responses so be sure to check out the other Parts of this feature.
Looking ahead, what technology will educe the biggest breakthroughs in electronic medical devices?
President and CEO, California MedTech (formerly Paragon Medsystems)
At California MedTech, we have identified two areas where significant innovation appears to be paving the way for new product opportunities.
The first area is the "mini domain," which refers to components such as motion control devices, photonics elements, minifluidics elements, and control systems that are smaller than anything readily available off-the-shelf, but which are substantially larger than MEMs-scale systems. Applications include improved end effectors for surgical robots and endoscopic tools—these need smaller motors, linear actuators, and solenoids with significant torque and holding force. Other applications include smarter smart-pills, with mechanisms to take biopsy samples, perform spectral measurements, and deliver therapeutic agents.
The second area is aesthetics—specifically, instruments designed to reduce the appearance of wrinkles. There has been enormous demand for products that apply RF, ultrasonic, and laser energy to the surface and underlying layers of the skin, and several companies have introduced products to meet this demand. However, we see an unmet need for instrumentation that provides better control over where the energy is applied, how much is applied, and what affect the energy has on the tissue, in order to produce better patient outcomes.
Director Custom Products Division, New Scale Technologies Inc.
Piezo motor technology is finally coming of age, having found commercial applications in cell phones, automobiles, and consumer electronics. Medical device applications require similar miniature motion technologies that provide increased functionality and greater precision in a smaller space. Piezo motors are the answer for these applications relative to traditional electromagnetic motors because they are smaller, lighter, more precise, lower power, inherently non-magnetic (safe for use in MRI), and low cost in their size range. Piezo motors are an enabling technology, facilitating the development of motorized keyhole surgical tools, robotic surgical tools, microfluidic drug delivery systems, and portable point-of-care and lab-on-chip diagnostic tools. Companies like New Scale Technologies Inc., who have already commercialized piezo motors, are manufacturing in volumes that make this technology attractive even for disposable applications. Squiggle motors are being designed into medical devices for many of the applications mentioned above, and have recently been adapted for implantable devices. The convergence of these applications is demonstrated in the Heartlander OMNI Robot developed by The Robotics Institute, Carnegie Mellon University. Using two Squiggle motors, the Heartlander Robot is designed to crawl along the surface of a beating heart. (See April's Feature Article "Piezo Motor Based Medical Devices" for additional information on this technology.)
Product Manager, Sensors, Omron Electronic Components LLC
As the size of consumer electronics has been greatly reduced over the past decade, I see many of the new developments in the medical device market similarly being driven by size reduction. The medical industry has been moving towards more portable and home-based treatment and monitoring solutions, allowing patients to have higher degrees of comfort and freedom, while reducing the length of hospital stays and the number of visits to doctors' offices.
Portable equipment, such as oxygen concentrators for COPD patients or CPAP machines to treat sleep apnea, must be small and lightweight enough to make both trips around town and travel across the country unencumbered. Patients recovering at home who are able to transmit their basic vitals to their healthcare provider over phone or internet lines benefit from increased rest while their doctor can monitor their condition more frequently.
Developments in the electronics industry have contributed to these trends in the medical device market through both advancements in wireless communication technology and miniaturization of components.
President, Intelligent Motion Systems Inc.
Global competitiveness has forced the need to shorten product development cycles and time-to-market. More complete solutions will help system designers reduce product development cycles. Integrated motors with electronics will play an important role in the future of automation in all market segments, but especially in the medical markets where the demand for machines with small footprint and high performance are well suited to integrated motor and electronic solutions which mirror their need by delivering high performance in an ultra-compact size.
Mechanical Engineer, Key Technologies
Further advances in microfluidics technology development will educe the most profound breakthroughs in medical diagnostic and therapeutic devices—and ultimately improve patient care. Microfluidics chips enable miniaturization of common macro-scale diagnostic devices down to microliter-level hand-held "lab-on-a-chip" devices. Smaller devices enable use at the point of care, and in certain cases, at home with the patient.
The technical advantages of lab-on-a-chip devices, as commonly known, include smaller sample size, higher throughput, faster analysis, and improved accuracy. Certainly, microfluidics diagnostic devices exist on the market today, but there still is significant untapped potential. For example, recent advances in micro fabrication techniques will enable micro pumps and valves to be located directly on the microfluidic chip, instead of requiring macro-scale components to drive the microfluidic flow.
The challenge for microfluidics is bridging the complex gap between R&D and production. Aside from the basic science employed to monitor the analyte, such as ultrasound or advanced optics, the primary challenge is miniaturizing the surrounding electronics and fluid controls, then integrating them seamlessly with the backbone of the device, the microchip.
For microfluidics devices to be successful, it is imperative for design teams to incorporate experts at all points along the value chain, from concept to design to manufacturing, such that the common mishaps associated with transitioning a design from the micro chip level to the macro world are overcome.
Product Marketing Engineer, Medical Products Group, Microchip Technology Inc.
The relentless drive toward lower power and miniaturization in medical devices is expected to be a prime source of innovation in coming years. The typical power source in handheld and implantable medical devices today is a battery, which adds size and weight. Emerging technologies that harness energy created by the human body and convert it to electrical power could eliminate the need for batteries in coming generations of portable medical devices.
Thermal-electrical generators that convert body heat to electrical energy could power small sensors inside or on the human body. Mechanisms that transform kinetic energy could be used to provide a constant power source for implanted devices. Such technologies already exist, but on a larger scale. In time, they will be perfected and scaled down for implementation in portable and implanted medical devices. The other piece required to make this a reality is for the electrical components, such as microcontrollers, to have a high integration of peripherals in a smaller form factor, while operating on even less power than they do today. As designers reap the benefits of these technological advances in the generation and management of power, they will create medical devices that previously existed only in science fiction novels.