The next wave in medical sensors – printed/flexible/stretchable
An expert talks about the latest in sensor technology development and shares a few tips on how medical device developers can find the right technology to suit their device.
When it comes to exciting new breakthroughs, you really don’t need to look any further than the industry of sensor technologies. From a biosensor technology that measures brain activity to a wearable sensor that can prevent pressure injuries, new sensor technologies are leading the charge in medtech innovation—and these developments are just the tip of the iceberg.
Roger Grace, president of strategic marketing firm Roger Grace Associates, has been working in the sensor technology market since 1982. Grace has spent years as a technology marketing consultant, providing a broad range of services from strategy development to custom market research and new product introductions.
In 2016 Grace was awarded the “Sensor Industry Impact Award” by Sensors Magazine for his contributions to the education and promotion of sensor technologies. As an expert on sensor technologies, Grace will be part of a panel discussion at the MD&M East Medtech Education Hub in New York this summer discussing the latest developments and trends in sensor technology.
Grace recently sat down to speak with MD+DI to preview his talk and share some of the exciting new developments coming out of the world of sensor technologies. He also offered a few tips for device makers when it comes to finding the right sensor technology for your device.
MD+DI: For starters, you have been working in the industry of sensor technologies for over 35 years. With new sensor technologies springing up almost every week, how do you keep up with the latest technologies?
Grace: I find attending conferences to be my No. 1 best approach to keep up to speed on technology—both from a technical paper presentation and visiting the exhibition booths to see what products are currently available. I also read a great deal, both printed technical publications and electronic. Finally, I also have many friends and colleagues who send me materials (and I do likewise) that I may have an interest in.
MD+DI: With so many options on the market, how challenging has it been for you when it comes to identifying the right sensor technology for a certain medical device? What are some keys that you look for when pairing the right technology to a device?
Grace: Having spent the first 15 years of my professional career as a design and systems engineer, I have learned to accomplish trade-off studies. In the sensor world, I like to look at it as a “toolkit” approach. There are a lot of different types of sensors available that may suit the measurement requirements of a device, so typically it comes down to which sensor technology does the best job. Moreover, I believe that designers need to look at sensors as a vital part of a systems-based solution, which must include several electronic functionalities to make them more valuable contributors to an application solution.
MD+DI: What are some of the coolest state-of-the-art sensor technologies you see on the horizon that could have a significant impact on medical devices in the near future? How soon could we see these technologies on the market?
Grace: I believe that printed/flexible/stretchable and functional fabric technologies will be the next major success stories in the medical diagnostics area. Printed/flexible/stretchable sensors are currently on the market by many suppliers, and they can measure a myriad of parameters.
Next in line are the sensors that can be woven in wearables, like shoes, socks, t-shirts. Several manufacturers have made these available to the market already. My presentation at MD&M East will highlight these technologies, as they are ideal for wearables that can measure physiological parameters including sweat, urine, saliva, blood, heart rate, and body temperature.
MD+DI: What role do sensor technologies play when it comes to the development of motion capture and user interface technologies, and where do you see these technologies having the biggest impact?
Grace: Motion capture has been a major application of inertial sensors like accelerometers and gyros. These typically are made from silicon and are considered microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). With the advent of the popularity of printed/flexible/stretchable and functional fabric sensors, various other information can be determined vis-à-vis bend sensors in the arms, legs, and fingers.
Also, optical sensors can be used for this purpose, much in the same way that autonomous vehicles use a sensor suite of microwave radar sensors, ultrasonic sensors, and infrared sensors to locate objects. Several companies are offering printed/flexible/stretchable sensors to measure gait and stride.
MD+DI: Is there an area where you think sensor technologies could be utilized more, or perhaps should be utilized more?
Grace: I believe that sensors have proliferated into a broad area of applications, but there will always be a need for better, cheaper, and smaller sensors.
MD+DI: These days, sensor technologies have been advancing at impressive rates. Is there still plenty of room for improvement when it comes to sensor technologies, and if so, how do you hope to see them evolve?
Grace: I believe that in the area of MEMS, we are now in a mature state. This technology first appeared in the early 1960s, so we’ve had over 50 years to refine them. At this point, I believe that the major area for improvement is to make sensors “smart” by adding more functionality to the sensors so that they can make decisions.
Smart sensors are available on the market today from many suppliers based on a recent market study that I conducted. Smart sensors include a microprocessor and other electronics either integrated onto or into the sensor or attached via bodwires in a package. Also, I believe that major advances can be made in packaging from a size, cost, and robustness perspective. I consider packaging, integration, and interconnects to be the key to successful sensing solutions.
MD+DI: Finally, in a broad sense, how important do you think sensor technologies are to the advancement of next-gen medical devices, and how ubiquitous do you think advanced sensor technologies will be in the next five to 10 years?
Grace: I believe that sensors will play a major role in the advancement of medical diagnosis in the near future. Constantly lowering costs, smaller devices will be the reason that these sensor technologies will be adopted in the medical care arena. I am especially confident that printed/flexible/stretchable and functional fabric technologies will play an important role in this process as well.