Electronics for the sick

I have always for medical electronics interesting and I have blogged about it from time to time [here and here, for example]. Part of the reason for my interest stems from an occasional feeling that so much of the electronics around me is ultimately pointless. Many Mentor Embedded customers are making consumer devices, cell phones and other gadgets. Do we really need all of these? Aren’t they really just toys – harmless toys, but toys nevertheless? [Except for my iPad, of course, which is a positive influence on my productivity and overall wellbeing.] Worse still, some customers are actually making weapons and they are not harmless at all!

However, we have many customers who make medical devices. I only have to look at a medical instrument and I have a warm feeling inside that maybe electronics can do some real good. The other aspect of medical instrumentation, that I find intriguing, is the extent to which its implementation clearly tracks the latest trends in embedded system development …

I can identify five key areas of very strong activity in embedded system development at this time and these are all very significant to medical devices:

Connectivity. A significant percentage – maybe more than half – of embedded devices are connected to one another or to a wider network. Medical instrumentation is very distributed and large volumes of data need to be stored and transmitted in a safe secure manner. The latest wired and wireless protocols are in significant demand, so the supply of such middleware, such as networking and USB, to our customers is critical.

User interface. The low cost and high quality of modern touch screen displays makes them attractive for many kinds of device. In the medical field, such a display can make an instrument much easier [and hence safer] to use and the patient may be reassured by a clear indication of their status. The complexity of programming 3D graphics is not inconsiderable, so the Mentor Embedded Inflexion product is very popular.

Low power. The design of portable devices is always challenging, as users perceive battery life a critical selection factor. Many medical devices are portable. Even for mains-powered equipment, there are environmental demands to reduce power consumption. Embedded software has an increasing impact on power consumption. Even simple things, like using a fast, small and scalable RTOS like Nucleus can have a very positive effect by reducing the amount of memory required and using every clock cycle of the CPU efficiently.

Multicore. An increasing number of embedded designs are implemented using multiple cores. There are various motivations for this decision, which include maximizing system performance while keeping power consumption down. In a medical device, it might be attractive to segment the parts of the implementation that need to be certified from those that do not and, hence, reduce costs.

Linux/Android. For appropriate applications, there is growing demand for Linux and Android. The wide range of middleware can help with connectivity and data storage. The Mentor Embedded Inflexion product is also available for Android and provides radical opportunities to customize and enhance the UI on a device.

This topic will be covered in a Web seminar in a few days – do sign up if you are interested. The session will be available as an archive after the live event.

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  • Many years ago, I accepted a significant salary cut in order to work in the Medical Electronics department of a prestigious New York teaching hospital. About half the people in the department worked on qualifying, acquiring, and maintaining laboratory equipment and patient monitors. The other half, ‘my’ half, did research and development (sometimes together with HP). In addition to HP mini-computers, I used a huge, roaring, real-time computer from Xerox. Xerox? … Yes, a beast that took up a quarter of the raised-floor room, but it had a great architecture and was completely dependable. The programs we wrote for that machine were used for 1) monitoring critically ill people, 2) providing the open-heart team with real-time data (direct and processed) during surgery, and supporting other hospital labs and procedures. For the first time in my engineering life, I saw real human benefits that resulted from my work. It was a great job.

  • Hi Colin,

    I am also an embedded software engineer. The company i am employed with works on mobile phones. And I have had the same feelings regarding the importance and meaning of my work in the broader sense. This article of yours makes a very good point and embedded development in medical field really makes a lot of sense. Thanks for the post.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2010/07/19/electronics-for-the-sick/