If you like your ultrasound technology nowadays, brace for more and better things coming in the next decade. Not only will computer power make ultrasound better, but new manufacturing methods can release hitherto unknown clinical benefits. Consider this. Engineers working at the Diagnostics & Biomedical Imaging at Global Research at GE Heathcare are developing new methods to construct ultrasound transducers. Their approach is to create innovative low-cost 3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing) of probes, while at the same time improving their functionality.
More from a blog post by Scott Smith, one of the researchers at GE Healthcare:
On my side, while in school, I studied materials and worked on connections between structure and function in exotic chemical compounds. When I began working at Global Research, real-time ultrasound imagers were new and exotic. Today, as you know if you’ve read my previous blog entry, GE has a big medical ultrasound business that makes a wide range of imagers from high-end machines for major teaching hospitals, all the way to portable and ultraportable machines that fit in your pocket.
All of these imagers contain a transducer, which is the part that actually touches your body. The transducers use a dense array of elements, each converting electrical signals into ultrasound waves, and vice versa. GE has been building them for years, but it is a hard process and hasn’t gotten much better throughout the years.
Prabhjot [Prabhjot Singh] tells me that early in the development of digital micro-printing, he showed the technology to Tom Batzinger, one of the ultrasound experts and technology evangelists at Global Research. Tom immediately recognized its potential as a novel method for making ultrasound transducers. Pretty soon, word got around about digital micro-printing’s potential application in making ultrasound transducers, prompting my own interest.
During our annual technology expo, called Techfest, I stopped by a digital micro printing demo that Prabhjot was hosting. Almost as soon as we started talking, we realized that additive manufacturing using digital micro-printing offered a single platform to perform almost all of the manufacturing steps needed to build transducers: Piezoelectrics, matching layers, and the adhesive joints between them. Moreover, over the years ultrasound researchers have proposed many novel transducer designs that have been between hard and impossible to realize because the manufacturing process is so complex. As we continued to explore digital micro-printing, we realized that many of these designs become simpler with additive manufacturing technology.
Additive manufacturing for ultrasound is a wonderful example of working on the interface among different scientific disciplines and one of the truly unique things about Global Research. With some imagination, it is possible to envisage a future where it would be possible to form a wide range of transducer arrays on a single automated assembly line. It’s been an evolving case of a good idea being even better than we thought it was. I think I speak for Prabhjot and myself when I say that we really enjoy this dynamic intellectual environment where progress comes not only from individual effort, but from the interplay of multiple technologies where everybody can learn from each other. That’s one of the reasons it’s more fun to come work in the lab where we can do things nobody has ever done before.