Five Key Trends Shaping the Future of Medical Imaging Interconnects

By Contributed Article | March 30, 2018

To satisfy evolving application demands, medical imaging interconnects are being designed to deliver higher-speed, higher-bandwidth performance in smaller, lighter, and more rugged form factors capable of higher mating cycles over longer lifetimes.

Carl Bunke, ITT Cannon Field Applications Engineer

Macro trends, such as an aging population, preventative care, and a shift to less invasive procedures, are heavily influencing the medical device industry, including medical imaging technology. The world’s largest healthcare device manufacturers principally shape medical imaging technology. GE, Philips Healthcare, Siemens Healthcare, and Toshiba are some of the leading companies driving the market, but there are newcomers popping up across the globe and pushing the envelope of what is possible.

Regardless of size, the medical market is constantly experiencing innovation. There are ever-increasing demands to deliver higher resolution, to manage increasingly large amounts of data more quickly and effectively, and to move toward increased mobility for more devices. Manufacturers and their end-customers need smaller, faster, higher-powered, and more robust ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT), and other medical imaging devices that can still maintain the longevity and reliability required to withstand demanding hospital environments.

Interconnects play a critical role in helping to realize these market demands, often serving as a key technology enabler for manufacturers designing and developing new imaging innovations. Let’s explore five trends shaping the future of medical imaging and the impacts on interconnect solutions.

Increasing Image Resolution Drives Higher Bandwidth and Speed

Medical professionals need the ability to quickly and accurately identify a potential health issue or verify that healing is progressing as planned, all while ensuring both patient safety and comfort. As such, medical practitioners are increasingly relying on high-resolution ultrasound, MRI, and other imaging solutions to visualize and diagnose internal disorders in an efficient, noninvasive manner.

3D ultrasounds are often used for fetal, cardiac, transrectal, and intravascular imaging.

Higher resolutions, such as those needed for 3D and 4D imaging, call for higher-speed, higher-bandwidth connectors to transfer the immense amounts of data required. The newest wave of imaging solutions is driving a significant increase in the number of contacts required. In some cases, these advanced devices require connectors with up to twice the pin-counts of traditional high-bandwidth connectors, which in turn drives increased shielding requirements to prevent outside interference and avoid signal distortion. When more robust medical imaging is required, some advanced solutions are now using high-speed connectors with high-mating-cycle RF contact systems to reliably transmit greater amounts of data at ever-increasing speeds with minimal interference. Subsequently, when designing these more complex ultra-high-resolution imaging platforms, it is imperative to consider the interconnect and, even more specifically, the contact system design early in the design cycle. 

Mobility Requires Smaller, Lighter, and More Rugged Connectors

Improved patient experience, on-site diagnostics, homecare, and telemedicine are just a few of the trends driving the demand for more mobile imaging solutions. Mobility translates into smaller, lighter, more portable solutions that are subject to frequent movement either within a facility or  beyond the facility to field sites. For these applications, interconnect designers must take into consideration a host of harsh environments, ranging from bouncing around in medical carts to exposure to dust, fluids, and chemicals, and the demands of up to thousands of mating and unmating cycles.

One challenge in meeting smaller device requirements is maintaining a high-quality solution in a more portable format with smaller, slimmer connectors due to size constraints. Incorporating advanced, lightweight, ruggedized materials, sealing techniques, and vibration-tolerant designs frequently used in military style connectors helps address weight and environmental requirements. Additionally, maintaining a reliable connection can be challenging in these denser, more compact designs, so shielding cannot be overlooked.

Figure 1: ITT Cannon’s QLC Solderless plug is a groundbreaking 260-pin ZIF connector that eliminates the need for hand soldering contacts onto PCBs. 

Longer Lifecycles With Higher Usage Demands Increased Usability and Reliability

In addition to increased resolution and mobility, the medical industry is demanding that new platforms be designed for longer life and increased utilization in order to improve the return on investment (ROI). Many typical applications expect a lifespan of 10 to 15 years or more, coupled with the need for near-constant mating and unmating of connectors by non-technical staff.

One interconnect solution that addresses both the demands for high-density and high mating cycles while still meeting ease of use requirements are zero-insertion-force (ZIF) connectors.  ZIF connectors utilize a contact mating method in which the initial plug-to-receptacle mating is made without the contacts touching each other until the connector is activated via a clamp-down or similar locking mechanism. This method is ideal in demanding, high usage medical environments, and delivers reliable, high-mating-cycle solutions over the lifetime of medical imaging devices. For example, some devices could run up to 20,000 mating cycles in an ultrasound unit with a female connector mounted on the console that can be mated to dozens of different probes with intermateable male connectors. Designing in this sort of flexibility allows the same ultrasound unit to be used for applications extending from prenatal care to scanning a small body part, such as a knee or ankle, simply by changing probes.

Figure 2: ITT Cannon’s DLP 408 is a resilient, high-pin-count connector that is capable of over 10,000 mating cycles and provides superior performance under the harshest EMI conditions.

“Smart” Connected Devices Need Safe and Secure Connectivity

The Internet of Things (IoT) and the move to smarter, more connected devices is permeating almost every global industry, and the medical imaging field is no different. Major device manufacturers have been connecting and monitoring imaging equipment for servicing and maintenance purposes for many years, but the new vision for networking devices is to enable the sharing of image data and analytics via the cloud. The future possibility of moving the computer-intensive processing of images from local processors to the cloud would be a game-changer for device manufacturers and would have a huge impact on the need for connectivity.

Today, telemedicine is currently being used to allow doctors to treat more patients remotely, as well as to provide a broader range of patients around the globe with access to basic or specialist care. For these applications, an ability to handle high-bandwidth data, such as video conferencing, in conjunction with diagnostic imaging is necessary. High-speed interconnects capable of enabling high-bandwidth data, wireless connectivity, and high-resolution imagery are essential elements in the growth of the IoT for medical imaging.

Customization of Application-Specific Connectors 

All of these rapidly evolving trends are driving new, exciting, and innovative medical imaging applications that are increasing the demands on the interconnect solutions that support them. These interconnects can be standard, slightly repackaged, or fully customized to meet specific application requirements.

Although many large manufacturers are moving towards standardization in an effort to drive down materials costs, qualification costs, and delivery times, the fact is that, in general, standard off-the-shelf connectors are often not ideal for many of these newer, more advanced designs with demanding requirements for high reliability, high mating cycles, small size, and light weight. As such, custom or semi-custom interconnects, designed with smaller form factors, rugged, lightweight composite materials, and novel coupling technologies are currently powering some of the most advanced medical imaging platforms. OEMs often request an experienced connector provider to explore semi-custom solutions, such as reconfiguring a standard connector into a smaller form factor, introducing composite materials or unique pin-counts and configurations, or even combining multiple connectors, to fit a specific application. That said, in some instances, pure customization is still sometimes the best solution for a challenging application. In these cases, it is important to work with a team of seasoned professionals who specialize in interconnects and know when to build upon existing connectors and when to start with a blank sheet of paper.

These five trends will continue to drive innovations as medical professionals and patients continue to expect solutions that not only do more, but take up less space, last longer, offer increased functionality, and are easier to use. Interconnects are a critical component to ensuring that these applications continue to evolve to meet the needs of the marketplace. Whether considering a standardized, semi-custom, or custom interconnect design for a medical application, be sure to look for an interconnect solutions partner who understands the demands of the medical industry and has a global reach, a legacy of innovation, and a track record of flawless execution and reliability.

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