Military to medical: an effective technology transfer

March 31, 2020 · 8 min read

When technology is engineered for the rigors of the military battlefield, it’s well prepared to transfer the same reliability and durability to the medical industry.


By Jean-Marie Buchilly, Innovation Cell Manager, Fischer Connectors

As the surgeon relied on the luminous headset to conduct complex surgery, there was just one annoyance: the cable powering it would repeatedly get in the way. A surgical nurse had to hold the cable away from the surgeon’s field of vision so that the doctor’s headset and its essential light worked properly during the procedure.


Had the headset and its cabling integrated a connector with more degrees of freedom, one that allowed the cabling to stay straight and in position no matter what the surgeon’s movement, the surgical nurse could be performing a role that didn’t include holding a cable.

This is just one example of a connectivity solution that started its life in the military and ended up in medical applications. And it’s precisely the path that design engineering often takes when it comes to medical devices. In the U.S. for example, because of the Food & Drug Administration (FDA)’s regulations that favor proven technology over first-generation innovations, engineers scout the world for successful approaches to challenges when designing for the critical and unforgiving medical market. Quite often, they look to the military for inspiration.


Military/medical collaboration


The link between the U.S. Military and innovations in the medical market got tighter in early 2018 when the FDA and the Department of Defense launched a joint program to bring the latest medical innovations to the battlefield in order to save more soldiers’ lives. This close collaboration brought breakthrough medical technologies to military personnel. While medical innovations were adopted in medical/military environments, inventions also made their way from military component suppliers over to the medical device side.

Incorporating the highest human factor standards of the medical community, and affording the same benefits – easy mating, easy cleaning, and easy integration – is one way to capture the salient characteristics from the military market and transfer such technology over. For instance, seven-contact military connectors with the newest design and plug & use technology (plug and receptacle on the right) can be redesigned with just four contacts (two for data, and two for power) and constructed using a high-end composite based on PEEK with salient characteristics suitable to the specifications of the medical environment (plug and receptacle on the left).

From military to medical applications: a deliberate approach


One of our connectors – the Fischer LP360™ connector from the Fischer Freedom™ Series – is a relevant example of technology transfer from Military to Medical. The breakthrough plug & use technology of this connector brought to the market in 2018 has been used in defense applications as part of soldier modernization efforts to optimize cable management and facilitate the integration of connectivity solutions into electronic ecosystems carried and/or worn by dismounted soldiers in the field. The history of this particular connector in military applications creates an ideal situation to incorporate the connector into new environments in the medical community. Lightweight, easy-to-use, cleanable connectors are important in the military, and the same usability characteristics are valued by medical professionals. Technology can be transferred from portable soldier communications gear to mobile medical equipment or, if you’re talking about wearables, from integrated soldier vests to patient-worn diagnostic or monitoring equipment.


The emergence of medical wearables during the rise of the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT)


The medical device community hasn’t been left out of the technology and connectivity revolution driving the Internet of Things. Devices talk to each other, alert doctors, and share information. It’s no surprise that the growth of wearables in medical applications relies on the Internet of Medical Things, and the ability to connect people and devices.


Medical wearable devices employ electronic mechanisms acting as biosensors that are used to detect and monitor physiological data.


In both military and medical wearables, the clothing or vest itself may serve as a hub. Required electronics are located inside the vest, reducing the number of cables outside the vest. Connectors are then strategically integrated into the wearable vest. These connectors serve as locations where one may connect the specific application via a mating connector or a cable. This same concept has many applications and uses in a clinical setting within the medical community.


Such wearable devices are non-invasive and commonly used in medical- and fitness-related applications. They perform a multitude of functions including data gathering, feedback, and data transfer over time. Wearable devices are growing in adoption and use by the medical community as they facilitate the gathering of data and its communication, without encumbering the users of the wearable.


While traditional markets for wearable devices occupy non-consumer niche applications in healthcare, defense, security, and industrial markets, we’re now seeing new lightweight, wearable computing products emerging in consumer or at-home patient care markets in medical segments. These include disease management, monitoring and feedback, rehabilitation, and health and fitness processes.


Electronic wearable medical devices serve multiple functions. They may not only be used by physicians and medical professionals, but are also used by patients to diagnose disease conditions such as chronic diseases of the heart, diabetes (monitoring blood sugar, glucose etc.), and various other illnesses.


Wim Vanheertum, who heads product management for Wearin’, a Fischer Connectors Group company focusing on integrated wearable solutions for various industries in demanding environments, says special care must be taken when transferring technology into the medical industry. “Soldiers cleaning connectors so they work properly is one thing. IP68 rugged, cleanable connectors are important. Medical professionals cleaning and sterilizing connectors and cables goes further, because a patient’s life or health is at stake. So when we design wearables for the medical industry, we take care to look very closely at patient safety and managing risk. We can start with ideas generated in defense, but we look seriously at the differences.”


Device mobility requires versatility to continuously gather data and feed information


In addition to wearable technology, medical device manufacturers look to portability and mobility in defense and security applications for inspiration. Small sensors enable hands-free mobility with real-time data monitoring. For example, glucose monitoring and drug delivery devices, activity monitors, smart equipment, and vital sign monitors may all be portable or wearable. The growth of patient-delivered care or family caregivers in a home environment drives the need for simplicity.


These portable devices are also ideal for chronic disease and pain management where consistent day-to-day actions can include monitoring and then reminding, warning, encouraging, and informing the patient of ways to comply with treatment regimens.


The sensors within a wearable may monitor multiple biomarkers, including those associated with diabetes, hypertension, and certain lung conditions.


A medical device for a diabetes patient, whether worn or portable, can detect and trace ketones – chemicals – and issue a low insulin warning to alert the patient to take insulin. Overall sensors can eliminate the need for invasive blood testing altogether. In order to implement such sensitive and delicate monitoring though, the right hardware must be used that allows the device to be not only reliable, but also convenient and not cumbersome. It must be usable.


Unprecedented usability


In designing a connector for use within the medical community, usability is a central theme. We’ve found that our connectors’ 360° of mating freedom has much utility for workers who use portable devices and require mobility. We design our connector for maximum flexibility; it rotates. Thus, cables stay in a straight line to the application, making mating easier. The same connector may also be designed with 180 degrees of mating freedom.


A wearable vest, for example, may provide the flexibility of being a distributed power hub. Different applications may move from one connector to the next on the same wearable (in this case of the vest). The distributed power hub allows the signal to “catch up” via the power hub integral to the wearable. This concept works just as well with mobile and modular devices. Thus, lights, cameras and other devices may be interchanged throughout locations on the equipment providing great flexibility to the user.


The aforementioned feature of the distributed power hub allows for mating connections to be built right into the application. The camera or light, for example, may interface with the stationary connection on a wearable, but the connection may also be built into the device that’s attached. This eliminates many cables and improves overall usability.


A power hub featuring connectors within the wearable take up minimal space, providing a more lightweight wearable. To meet this requirement, we constructed the new connector out of plastic, instead of metal, and in a smaller size (and thus with less weight) to allow for even easier integration into medical devices and electronic ecosystems. The material selected for this new version is a high-end polymer that allows for durable use. Indeed, combined usability and durability are very important attributes for the medical community.


The medical community’s next-generation connectors


Great success is achieved when innovation and technology are transferred from one industry with high standards – the military market – to another – the medical community. This has been the case for decades. Krazy Glue, digital cameras, the microwave oven, computing and many other technologies all began in the military, where technology and research efforts were plentiful, and were later transferred to other industries, including medical. That’s exactly the case with our new line of connectors: design for the military, then transfer the technology to a design for the medical community.


As portable and wearable devices become more in demand by medical professionals and patients, the precise components that are part of their design will demand more characteristics and require a higher standard of performance. That’s precisely the “connectivity-by-design” philosophy of the new Fischer FreedomTM Series, which serves as a modular technology platform and a versatile innovation enabler in connectivity, cable management and design application based on customers’ needs, requirements and expectations – as well as on market trends and industry standards.


Technology transfer from one market to another is actually made easy with a new connectivity technology such as this one, whose usability characteristics and integration capability benefit both end users and the integrators and engineers designing their device. By migrating from the military market to a different but equivalently demanding medical market, the right connector, with the right characteristics, at the right time, can make all the difference.


Jean-Marie Buchilly leads the Innovation Cell in Fischer Connectors’ R&D and is constantly on the lookout for the next innovation to change the world of connectivity.

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