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Flexible Printed Circuit Boards in Medical Device and Life Sciences Today

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In Brief

Flexible circuitry has been around for 115 years and its versatility across industries is unparalleled. Its uses and applications seem almost limitless. In fact, the demands of healthcare alone are driving innovations in this field at a rapid pace.

First patented in 1902 by Albert Hanson, the circuit invention was initially aimed at solving the problems encountered with the manual telephone exchange interconnection. At that point, the telephone had been around for about 25 years and still relied on a manual connection (with resulting errors).

Hanson realized that more of these interconnects - and increased accuracy - would be increasingly important. Since his goal was to build the most practical and versatile systems, he chose materials that could be shaped and configured optimally for the application.

 

In the 115 years that followed, flexible circuitry has risen to the challenge of delivering 'faster, smaller, cheaper' solutions for countless industry sectors. From the Information Age to the Space Age, flex has gone from the telephone switchboard to flying on almost every NASA mission.

 

Flexible Printed Circuit Boards in Medical Devices

While flexible PCB's have proven their merits in outer space, the new frontier where they can shine is "inner space." They are critical materials whose use enables quickly expanding technological advances in medicine and healthcare.

 

Besides implantable and nonimplantable medical devices, flexible circuits are also found in diagnostic equipment such as scanning machines (ultrasound, MRI's, CT, x-rays, etc.). Additionally, they are integrated into surgery tools (electronic saws, screwdrivers, and cauterizing scissors) and single-use devices (SUD's): electric biopsy forceps, ultrasonic scalpels, and electrode recording catheters.

 

The future of medicine includes biology, physics, photonics, electronics, and MEMS (MicroElectroMechanical Systems). One exciting new role for flexible circuitry is in the field of bionics as applied to sight restoration. In this case, flex connects retinal sensors to electronic hardware.

Flexible PCB's are also used in:

  • pacemakers
  • hearing aids
  • monitors
  • drug delivery devices
  • sensors

 

The "Telehealth" Applications

The expanding practice of "telehealth" involves the use of digital information and communication technologies to manage patients' health and well being. Wearable electronics and other small medical devices provide real-time feedback from the patient to the healthcare provider via computer.

This remote monitoring of health indicators, such as blood pressure, blood glucose, heart rate and rhythm, and other vital signs, can help with early detection to avoid serious complications if left unchecked. 

 

The growth in this technology is driven by an aging population, with more risk factors than younger patients, and mounting pressure to improve outcomes while reducing costs and hospital readmission rates.

Thanks to flexible PCB's, the wearables available today are lighter and more compact than those offered just 10 years ago. Lightweight circuitry enables the device manufacturers to maximize space and efficiency.

 

The Future of Flexible PCB's 

Medical devices continue to be miniaturized and this process requires producers to adapt flex circuits for 3D packaging, tighter copper flex spacing, and trace widths. Another benefit of flex circuits is their lighter weight, which results in improved patient mobility and comfort -- and usually cost savings. One possible bump in the road of developing new medical technology is the FDA approval process. Many US manufacturers complain about how long it takes. They note that the average time for clearance has gone from 55 days in early 2000, to 110 days in 2006, and to 166 days in 2013. 

 

Summary

The future demand for implanted medical devices and flexible PCB's will be driven by aging populations, emerging global economies, and technological advances that lower costs. While some predict rising health care costs, others argue that implantable medical devices reduce costs by allowing patients to be more productive and avoid expensive long-term care. Overall, the desirable qualities of flexible PCB's, along with increasing demand and better technology and innovation will remain the motivating factors in this hot market.

 

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