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Electrical Components - May 2006

The competitive field of minimally invasive surgery (MIS) is a $3 billion market growing 15 to 25% annually. The growth rate is no surprise because MIS promises less pain and shorter recoveries. (On the afternoon of back surgery, I was up and walking around.)

Continued MIS developments increase the need for more electrically-powered devices. For example, sensors of all types, along with RF heating and ablation devices, can radically improve diagnoses and therapy. However, adding functions increases the number of wires as well. State-of-the-art devices that once used eight wires now call for up to 64 and more.

Smart ConnectorsPlanning for Gen 2
Surprisingly, most electrical medical instruments are still in their first generation designs. They were built much the way radios were in the 1940s – by starting with tubes, wires, and dielectrics, each part a discrete component. In the medical-device world, engineers would gather a group of parts and literally string them together to reach a technical goal. Each start-up company began much this way. After approving the equipment for medical use, regulatory requirements tended to shackle technical improvements.

Here’s part of the problem: Connector technology has made great leaps, but most connectors have not. Many devices are still built in relatively small production lots, more like art than full production designs.

Manufacturing MethodsOne goal in the redesign of first-generation devices is to cut manufacturing costs. Drop-in replacement connectors, for example, include small circuit boards for tasks such as device ID, use-limiters, eeproms, and fine-tuning. These new connectors do not require regulatory paperwork, other than a letter to file. New connectors also add capability and often save more money than they cost. The cost-savings comes from a significant labor savings. For instance, conventional solder joints often cost over $1 each. New connectors eliminate manual soldering.

As medical-device capability advances and products call for more features, wire counts and interconnections also rise. But electrical interconnections can get out of control using old techniques. The solution is not in hiring more skilled hand labor.

A few years ago, conventional wisdom said it was impractical to put more than 10 wires plus mechanical components in a size 7 catheter. Today, 14 to 70 electrical lines are common. And that’s not a limit.

One lab has built a proprietary system with 1,000 electrical lines in a square centimeter. It’s becoming more routine to combine different size wires, electronic components, and solder ultra-fine 50 AWG wires without quality problems.

Next-gen connectors
Second and third generation medical devices are on drawing boards. They use space-saving flat-wire systems, connectors with up to 100 contacts, and connectors work with wires in catheter walls. Our company has developed systems for managing hundreds of wires in the space previously crowded by ten.

OEMs need not be large firms before taking advantage of smarter designs and production techniques in development. Advanced connector systems have been successfully employed for over three years and are helping reinvent the medical interconnection market.

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