Electric feel: how electronics are advancing medical devices | Innovation

Smart health was centre stage at this year’s Medtec Europe. Patrick von Meiss, head of sales at Swiss contract manufacturer Valtronic explored the many evolving challenges of using electronics in devices in front of an audience of OEMs. MTI’s Dave Gray writes.

In an industry which has been disrupted at scale by connected technologies, electronics are driving new waves of innovation in medical devices.

“Companies need to completely re-design their products in order to stay competitive”, said von Meiss as he talked the crowd through the many challenges of selecting and using electronic components in an increasingly miniaturised world.

The trends driving the need for electronics in medical devices include minimising patient trauma, more cost-effective therapy, more functionality, reduced size, portability, ease of use and connectivity, he said.

But challenges like miniaturisation of the device are compounded by the need to retain standard costs – and this can hold manufacturers back. Other obstacles include optimised security, efficient power management and supply chain management (including the risk of components becoming obsolete over time).

He gave the example of a cochlear implant. The components inside such devices sometimes need to last as long as 70 years, he said. But, maintaining a simple dialogue with components suppliers can be a pro-active way to manage risk around parts becoming obsolete.

While surface-mounted devices are the most common solution for miniaturisation, chip-on-board technologies are become more prevalent.

“The way to reduce the risk for electronic boards is to work on the feasibility stage first. We [Valtronic] work first on the functions that we feel are risky. We try to make a proof of concept of those risky functions. We have a risk management system right from the beginning of the project. And we use the verification and validation methodology, which is usually used in software.”

The next example from von Meiss was a deep brain stimulation unit, which is just 20mm long and 8mm wide – and yet uses 13 components connected with gold wires. “The central unit needs to be very close to the brain, so this created many different challenges in reducing the size.” The group achieved this using high-tech miniaturisation methods but without adding additional costs.

Finally, the group’s otoscope (a consumer device for assessing the health of the eardrum) is something which the group is developing. “First of all we needed to acquire some video images. So we brought a temparature sensor, added a camera, and tried to take some video [as the feasibility study,” he explained.

“We made several prototypes before going to clinical trials. There are four cameras in the device, which allow you to choose which is the right one to examine the ear.” Again, with a combination of feasibility studies and low-cost miniaturisation techniques, the group was able to create a device which houses all four cameras but still fits inside the ear.

“Innovation today is mainly driven by electronics. Very often OEMs will need to add intelligence and communication skills to their products. What they need to do is choose a partner specialised in electronics. Also, choose a partner specialised in miniaturisation. To achieve both of these things together, find someone with R&D and production at the same location. That way you can test the product immediately,” von Meiss concluded.

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