Medical devices are essential tools for the diagnosis, prevention, and management of health conditions. Spanning from the humble sticking plaster, up to the most advanced of surgical robots, their development is an iterative and collaborative process, during which many requirements must be balanced to create a safe, effective, and user-friendly product.

Emerging technologies – those which are still being pioneered and whose practical realisation remains largely untapped – have been transforming the medical industry by enabling ever more innovation in the devices used to address the current and future needs of patients, caregivers, and clinicians alike.

In this article we discuss some of the most promising and successful technologies being deployed in the sector today, helping to improve device useability and feature set, while reducing time to market.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence (AI) propelled its way to the forefront of the collective consciousness in 2023 with the public’s newfound access to generative AI, which demonstrates the ability of machines to perform previously human-exclusive creative tasks – such as writing and art – through a marriage of neural network Machine Learning (ML) techniques, and vast swathes of training data.

While the fundamental concept of using computers to spot patterns in large datasets is nothing new, the recent miniaturisation of electronics, offloading of data storage and processing to mobile phones and server farms, and the increased sophistication of software and their algorithms has led to an explosion in AI presence in our lives.

Utilising this technology, researchers are beginning to exploit AI during drug development to help design molecules, optimise synthetic routes, and predict the effects of compounds. Generative AI has introduced new possibilities for device design too, being able to output countless highly detailed and wholly original concept images in a matter of minutes, if not seconds.

AI - artificial intelligence

In medical devices already on the market today, algorithms are using the output of biometric sensors to detect the early signs of infection, improve diagnosis accuracy, and provide personalised treatment plans for patients. Speech recognition – another real-world application of AI – has enabled devices to become hands-free, and in the process is helping to limit exposure to infectious diseases and dangerous substances through cross-contamination.

Though the technology may be controversial, and how far it ultimately progresses and integrates itself into our lives has yet to be seen, its practical application and utility even in this early stage is undeniably impressive.

Wearables and Immersive Technologies

Wearable technologies (“wearables”) are, as the name suggests, devices which can be worn by the user – typically over the body as an accessory, or internally as an implant. In a similar vein to AI, though the core concept of a wearable device is nothing new – glasses and watches have been around for hundreds of years at this point – advancements in wireless data transfer, the miniaturisation of microprocessors, and the rise of smart phones and mobile apps has led to an explosion of new and novel wearable products.

Such devices have emerged as a key technology in healthcare due to their ability to continuously gather data direct from the user and their surroundings, and provide immediate feedback or alerts to the wearer, healthcare providers, and even emergency services when life-threatening issues arise.

Current applications include the analysis of air quality and pollutants to aid those with respiratory problems, and the monitoring of various ailments through physiological parameters such as respiratory rhythm, skin temperature, and blood oxygen saturation monitoring.

Immersive technologies such as augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and haptic feedback are finding applications throughout the industry, from product development in helping engineers to visualize 3D models in the real world from a first-person perspective, to allowing training surgeons to practice their skills in a safe environment.

During real live surgeries, this technology offers the potential to view vital stats without the surgeon looking away from the patient via a head-up display, and even opens the possibility up for real-time remote support from more experienced surgeons, regardless of where they’re situated in the world!

Robotics surgery

Robotics and Automation

The manufacture of intricate medical instruments often requires a level of precision that is often beyond the capabilities of human hands alone. Automated assembly lines, equipped with robotic arms, can ensure the precise fabrication of medical devices to not only enhance the quality of the devices, but also increase production efficiency.

An increased availability of pneumatic, hydraulic, and electrical control systems, along with the relative abundance of mechatronic know-how, has now helped filter this technology down into devices themselves. Robotics can aid medical device developers in automating repetitive processes to reduce human error, improve safety, and enhance diagnosis precision, accuracy, and throughput.

One such example is the use of robotics to perform minimally invasive surgeries which require high dexterity and control. Such advanced systems enable surgeons to control robotic arms with precision, translating their hand movements into highly controlled actions within the patient’s body, minimising the invasiveness of surgeries, and in the process reducing recovery times the risk of complications.

Automation in diagnostic processes, such as robotic radiography systems, have revolutionized the way healthcare professionals obtain medical images by precisely positioning imaging equipment. This results in higher quality images and a reduced need for retakes, accelerating the diagnostic timeline and improving the accuracy of medical assessments.

In the realm of patient care, robotics extend to rehabilitation and physical therapy, where exoskeletons and rehabilitation devices provide support and assistance to individuals with mobility issues, helping them regain their strength and independence!

Additive Manufacturing

Additive manufacturing – more commonly known as 3D printing – is the process of fabricating a real-world object from a three-dimensional CAD model by digitally slicing it into layers, each of which is then physically “printed” one on top of another, being bonded together in the process, to gradually build up the finished part.

The technology gained traction in the field of engineering, where it had clear advantages in quickly and cheaply delivering one-off prototype parts during the development process. It has since been stripped back and simplified to drive costs down enough to foster a thriving hobbyist community, and further technologically refined to suit the higher-precision and wider material option needs of industry. These cost-down, technology-up drivers have culminated now to the point where 3D printed parts are becoming ever more cost- and performance-viable for production applications.

And from an engineer’s perspective, where designing for more traditional processes must account for the likes of tooling access and moldability, 3D printed parts can be as geometrically unconstrained and experimental as desired!

When coupled with 3D scanning technology, this ability to create one-off, bespoke parts quickly and relatively cheaply has lent itself perfectly to medical devices which need to conform to a patient’s specific anatomy, for the likes of prosthetics, implants, orthotics, and orthodontics. No longer must patients have to suffer the discomfort of mass-produced products designed around an ideal, or statistical norm body type.

In a more experimental application, bioengineers are ambitiously researching techniques to 3D print complete organs using stem cells. If the concept proves successful, this technology has the potential to deliver organs to patients on-demand, ending donor waiting lists, and should reduce the chances of transplant rejection too!

The field of medical device development is ever evolving; driven by emerging technologies and their novel and innovative applications, giving rise to better devices, for better health. On the horizon – and already on the market – are smarter, more bespoke devices, tailor-made to improve the ease of care, efficacy of treatments, and quality of everyday life for patients.

Medical Device Design Development Engineer, Daniel Kirkham Dan Kirkham 29 February 2024

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Get in Touch with Dan Kirkham

Dan graduated from Staffordshire University with a first-class bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and has since gained 10 years’ experience in product design, manufacturing, and project management. Prior to HD, he worked developing laboratory equipment from concept to production integration, including agitation, spectrophotometer, and PCR machines. Dan holds a PRINCE2 project management qualification, and within HD is keen to contribute his experience and further develop his technical engineering skills.

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