Healthy opportunity

The global downturn has caused many engineering firms to diversify; not just product lines, but also sectors. The transfer of technology and products into new, and potentially, profitable sectors has never been so important, and it has been something most engineering firms are eager to explore.

Among the more buoyant markets are the aerospace and medical sectors, which are similar in the sense that they tend to operate over longer lead times, have lower volumes and need components that are made to a very high quality and standard. But gaining the necessary standards can be a time consuming and laborious process that many firms find off putting.

In many cases, certification and testing is done at the assembly level, opening up opportunities for component suppliers to get in on the action. "We use commercial off the shelf (COTS) products wherever possible," says Paul Roberts, a senior consultant at Sagentia. "As long as there are no safety or contamination issues, motors, drives and sensors do not necessarily have to be specifically developed for the medical market."

Sagentia is best described as a high end technology consultancy with expertise and development skills ranging from consumer products to materials technologies. But its depth of understanding of the medical markets, the technological challenges and legislative requirements has lead to it commercialising a number of innovations in the sector. Among its most recent innovations is the Freehand. This surgical robot is designed to do just that: free up a hand of a surgeon by holding an endoscope during abdominal surgery. With surgery sometimes lasting up to eight hours, the manual approach – using an assistant to hold the endoscope – is impractical, with fatigue causing both the hands and the camera to shake. In the past, the surgeon and assistant would often need to work intimately, standing in close proximity to get both the camera and surgical instruments in the correct positions.

"The surgeon would literally have to wrap his arms around the assistant holding the camera to perform the surgery," says Roberts. "And communication could also be a problem, with the camera not always moved as instructed. It was a far from an idea solution."

The problem was recognised by Prosurgics, which approached Segentia to develop a solution. The result saw Sagentia develop a robot arm that is clamped to the side of the operating table with the tip of the arm holding the endoscope in place.

The precise movements of the endoscope are operated by the surgeon via a headset fitted with an accelerometer. Surgeons gently move their heads in the direction the camera needs to move and this prompts an arrow to appear on an LED screen so the surgeon can confirm the correct direction has been selected. The surgeon then presses a footswitch to initiate movement. They can then stamp on the footswitch to change modes and can operate a zoom in a similar fashion.

"It was quite difficult to operate at first," says Roberts. "But, we found surgeons – who generally have excellent coordination – picked it up and mastered it very quickly."

Despite the innovative approach, the motors, accelerometer and many of the components are essentially catalogue items. Precision motion control is provided by motors from Maxon and, although these are strong, high performance motors made to a high spec, they are not specifically aimed at the medical market. The 13mm motors are a catalogue part used in a variety of industrial applications.

But it is not just component suppliers who should be seeing the medical sector as an opportunity to diversify. Telsonic, which manufactures plastic welding equipment extensively for the automotive sector, has also been able to make inroads.

Its technology uses ultrasonic pulses to weld, join and seal plastic parts. However, the process produces amplitude in the vertical plane that has, in the past, prohibited its use in delicate applications in electronic and medical industries. This was because of concerns over damage to fragile components or perforation of micron thin seals and membranes.

Vertical amplitudes produced across the face of the sonotrode, or horn, when using conventional ultrasonic welding techniques cause a diaphragm effect. This, in turn, can perforate the membrane.

To make its process eligible for use in the medical market, Telsonic devised a technique to eliminate the problem using small circumferential amplitudes that allows even the most delicate electronic components or material membranes to be joined. The technique, dubbed Soniqtwist, produces small amplitudes in a circumferential manner at the perimeter of the seal, with the torsional amplitude diminishing to almost zero. As a result, Soniqtwist is now being used to create air tight seals on membranes just 50µm thick for use in medical pots, devices, containers and drug delivery systems.

And Telsonic has been able to exploit its breakthrough in other welding and forming operations where thin wall section components are used. And it is being used on a variety of materials including plastic, ceramic and aluminium.

As well as using COTS components and the possibility of transferring processes over to the medical sector, many companies are developing proprietary devices to fulfil a particular need. Like the consumer market, the medical sector is continually looking to innovate, following the general trend of bringing more products to market is less time. One of the more successful companies to achieve this is Cambridge Consultants.

"You need to really think about what a device might do," says Andrew Diston, head of the company's global medical practice. "Is it something for diagnostics, is it something for a surgical device, is it delivering a drug? Think about where it might be applied and then look at the companies that are already playing in that space. Do you have something that can solve their problem or make their existing product better?

"It can be best to find your local surgeon or doctor and talk to them. Find out what the problems are. Or, if you have developed a product, see what they think about it."

Cambridge Consultants is currently exploiting the continued development of wireless technology and is applying the benefits to the medical field. This has the potential to revolutionise patient monitoring and would negate the reels of cables that, at present, surround patient beds.

"Wireless technology has revolutionised everyone's lives," says Diston. "But getting that sort of technology into a medical product is not straight forward."

The company has built up significant expertise using wireless technology for medical applications and endured the vigorous processes required to attain an ISO13485 quality standard. For smaller, or less experienced companies, getting the proper certification is a significant hurdle.

"It is potentially a major obstacle to overcome," says Diston. "But, it does very much depend on the market you are going in to. If it is pharmaceutical it can takes many years to bring new devices and pharmaceuticals to market. In the straight device end of the market, you might see companies that need to introduce new or similar products two or more times a year."

The company has developed two medical inhalers in recent years. As the two primary providers, Pharma and Generics, reach the end of their patent lives, companies are seeking new opportunities to re-position products in this market.

In response, Cambridge Consultants has developed the Conix, a high performance 'reverse flow cyclone' inhaler, and the Gen-X which will have lower price-point due to its construction. The medical sector remains a key area of opportunity for the wider engineering industry. And firms should continually be looking make progress diversifying.

"There is huge spending on health," says Diston. "And, as it is generally quite specialist and relatively low volume, much of the technology will need to be sourced from other industries."

Justin Cunningham

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