Mechatronics Examples of Improving Design and Operation of Medical Devices

Although mechatronics date all the way back to 1969, when the Japanese firm Yaskawa coined the term blending “mechanical” and “electronics,” steady advancements in technology – especially the software that drives the system and wireless connectivity that links it to other computers – have vastly expanded its use.

Today, a major focus area for mechatronics is medical devices. By integrating mechanical and electrical hardware with software processes, device designers can deliver highly sophisticated functionality. The beauty of mechatronics lies in flexibility, enabling its use in a growing range of medical applications from positioning systems in hospital beds to robotic surgical devices. Classic mechatronics examples are the pacemaker and defibrillator, as well as the active ankle-foot orthosis, featuring computer-controlled actuators to improve gait.

Newer devices include advanced “active” prosthetic limbs, such as prosthetic hands and individual finger digits that enable users to grasp and maneuver objects. In the surgical area, the highly sophisticated da Vinci system from Intuitive Surgical allows the surgeon to perform procedures through tiny incisions by manipulating several robotic arms while viewing the site remotely using 3D vision technology. Mechatronics translates the surgeon’s hand movements into the actions of the robotic arms to perform a minimally invasive procedure. Another example is a new type of endoscopic procedure in which the patient ingests an endoscope camera in a small capsule that wirelessly transmits 360-degree views of the body to a memory card in a vest worn by the patient, allowing physicians to remotely visualize the small bowel, colon or esophagus without a traditional endoscope.

Trends in Medical Mechatronics

One of the major healthcare trends affecting mechatronics technology is miniaturization. Ever-smaller instruments, devices, and equipment are being developed to enable less-invasive surgical techniques that allow faster recovery. The use of microactuators and microsensors is driving development of tiny mechatronics designs for:

  • Scientific instruments for flow cytometry, DNA identification, pathogen detection and DNA sequencing
  • Medical imaging using small, precise modules for lens control and laser tuning
  • Implantable devices that can be dynamically adjusted in-place
  • Mobile miniature robots
  • Micropumps and auto-injectors for drug delivery products
  • Handheld diagnostics for use at the point of care, including ultrasound and blood testing

Another important trend is the increased emphasis on patient comfort and device usability/aesthetics as care is moved from hospitals to outpatient settings and as savvy consumers demand a better patient experience. Medical equipment is being redesigned to make it more accessible (e.g., lowering the height of diagnostic and treatment tables) and quieter and adding finer-grained control functionality. In many cases, mechatronics is supplanting traditional hydraulics for motion control because these systems are simpler, less noisy and smaller/lighter in weight. Examples of mechatronics use in equipment include gantry systems for imaging, telescopic pillars for raising and lowering surgical tables and actuation systems for hospital beds, examination couches, and stretchers.

Mechatronics technology makes it possible for designers to reconfigure stationary monitoring equipment for home use by:

  • Including wireless (cloud) features to communicate results to caregivers
  • Enabling analysis of trends in critical health parameters, particularly for population studies
  • Ensuring patient usability by simplifying the user interface
  • Strengthening patient safety by incorporating alarm systems

Mechatronics Examples: From Reusable to Disposable

Disposable medical devices are an exciting development in the mechatronics field that is being driven by the availability of low-cost, miniaturized consumer electronics technology. Mechatronics examples like single-use devices featuring these affordable consumer electronics technologies not only reduce costs of autoclaving, but also help to prevent the spread of infection that is a risk of reusing these items. The endoscopy capsule is inexpensive enough to be flushed after it has traveled through the digestive tract, as opposed to autoclaving an endoscope. Drug delivery devices are another potential area.

By drawing on its experience in consumer electronics, together with newer capabilities, Jabil Healthcare is developing and manufacturing mechatronics-enabled diagnostic imaging equipment, in-vitro diagnostics, drug delivery products, patient monitoring systems, respiratory and dialysis equipment and video endoscopy devices, both reusable and disposable.

Mechatronics examples, building on a long and rich history, are writing a new chapter in the medical field by leveraging low-cost consumer electronics, miniaturization technologies such as tiny video cameras and ubiquitous wireless networking and software components. Mechatronics offers great potential to enhance the patient experience, deliver new tools to clinicians and drive down the enormous costs of today’s healthcare delivery.

What impact will the influence of human factors and ergonomics (HF&E) have on the designer’s ability to apply mechatronics to medical device design and development? What other mechatronics examples can we consider?