Industrial, Life-Science Imaging Go Hand in Hand
| By: Winn Hardin , Contributing Editor
The bulk of machine vision marketing materials and media coverage focus on the industrial applications for imaging systems. Using AIA membership as a cross section of the larger machine vision industry reveals that much of the technology and expertise needed to inspect products also applies to automating life sciences, medical research, and medical-device manufacturing.
“What we’ve seen at AIA is that for many member companies, life sciences and microscopy applications are almost as big a part of our business as factory automation,” notes Greg Hollows, Chairman of the AIA’s Board of Directors and Director of Machine Vision Solutions at Edmund Optics (Barrington, New Jersey). “There are many challenges associated with achieving ideal imaging in the life-sciences market. Machine vision and life sciences have significant differences between the type of materials inspected and the environments in which the imaging products are utilized. However, the technologies which are used to solve both market areas are very similar and in most cases identical. The sensors technologies that are used and the optic principles/limitations that are employed are fundamentally the same.
“In many cases,” Hollows continues, “one of the main differences between microscopy or automated life sciences and factory automation is the field of view. There’s a lot of overlap, and I think as we move forward, AIA wants to find ways to serve the life-sciences community better. The people designing automated life-science solutions are brilliant biologists, but they may not be aware of all the physics behind a successful automated imaging system.”
Automation Drives Down Medical Costs
As the average age of citizens in developed countries increases, there is a global effort to provide better medical care at lower costs. A big part of that effort is automated solutions that increase throughput for medical tests and screening.
“During the last few years, we’ve witnessed automated microscopy solutions moving out of the R&D lab and closer to the point of care,” explains Dr. Joost van Kuijk, Vice President of Marketing & Technology at Adimec Holding BV (Eindhoven, The Netherlands), maker of high-performance cameras. “That means volumes are going up from a couple of systems to thousands per year for high-data-rate cameras that can pass FDA requirements.”
The majority of these systems use scientific-grade charge-coupled device (CCD) cameras versus complimentary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) sensors; however, that could change soon. “Scientific CMOS cameras are coming to market recently, but there is still more work to be done,” van Kuijk says. “What the market really wants is low-noise sensors that do not need cooling to achieve five electron noise levels at room temperature or lower. [Life-science customers] also want global shutters and high frame rates in the hundreds or thousands of frames per second for automated microscopy solutions with high throughput. Today, CCD cameras can provide low-noise operation with global shutter at frame rates of up to 100 fps, but it will take CMOS sensors to go above that rate. Unfortunately, scientific CMOS cannot meet CCD noise levels yet with global shutter with high yields. We already have the ability to transmit the high data rates, thanks to CoaXPress, which Adimec helped to develop.”
Adimec is working with customers on a number of R&D projects that use high-performance, scientific-grade cameras to automate various medical procedures, including ophthalmology for non-invasive disease monitoring and screening, as well as optical coherence tomography (OCT) and endoscopy for patient monitoring during surgical procedures.
Emerging Market Growth
In addition to aging populations in developed countries, many machine vision technology suppliers have watched the rising standards of living in many emerging markets with great interest. “As far as x-ray systems, Adimec has watched China, India, and Brazil very closely,” says van Kuijk. “Unfortunately, for the bulk of these systems, these markets are more concerned with price points than meeting performance requirements that are common to developed markets. For this reason, we’re leaving it up to the big system integrators to battle it out in those emerging markets. For example, 5% of medical installations in these markets may use high-quality x-ray systems, but the quality of the remaining 95% will be hit or miss. The same price considerations continue to hamper the use of large-area x-ray sensors over the use of image intensifiers.”
Machine vision integrator Artemis Vision (Denver, Colorado) recently helped a customer develop an inexpensive endoscopic application to overcome just these price concerns for emerging markets. “For endoscopic applications, you can develop a chip-on-tip solution, where the camera is inserted into the body,” explains Tom Brennan, President of Artemis Vision. “Or you can take a boroscope approach and use a fiber-optic bundle to collect the light and bring it to the camera outside the body. The downside to the cost-effective boroscope approach is that optical fibers don’t transmit light as well at the edge of the fiber. Because there are fewer fibers than pixels, you get a honeycomb pattern over your image.”
Artemis developed a software application that filtered out the honeycomb pattern, as well as allowed the technician to view and record live images. “The idea is that you can use a $400 camera instead of a $20,000 chip-on-tip endoscope,” he notes.
Better Living through Technology
As we can see from the experiences of machine vision insiders, while the latest 29-megapixel CMOS camera may be one part of the answer to improve the accuracy of medical screening instrumentation, it is not the only entire solution. For developed markets, “using multiple high-resolution cameras in an automated solution may increase the cost of a $100,000 instrument to $500,000, but if you increase the throughput by 10, it’s a better deal for everyone,” says Stephan Briggs, Biomedical Engineer at Edmund Optics. “That will eventually lead to complete DNA screening for less than $1,000 per test, which will improve diagnostic and preventive medicine and lower a population’s overall medical costs. But we have to do a better job of educating the medical instrumentation community about the optical design consequences of moving to higher-resolution systems, for example.”
Many automated medical screening solutions will benefit from high-resolution sensors with smaller pixel sizes that exceed the diffraction limit for commercially available optics, while other solutions will use large-area sensors with standard pixel sizes, requiring larger, higher-cost optics similar to semiconductor lithography systems. “At Edmund Optics, we need to make sure we have solutions for both ends of the spectrum while educating our medical customers on the trade-offs inherent to different instrument design approaches,” Hollows says.