Small form factors add up big savings in medical devices - Q&A with Frank Shen and Jack Lam, American Portwell Technology

Frank Shen and Jack Lam of American Portwell Technology share their insight on what it takes for small form factors (SFFs) to meet the diverse needs of today's medical applications.

2Today's medical devices are extremely diversified. Some demand high graphics power and others call for a very compact form factor with minimum power consumption, while all require cost-effectiveness.


SFF: What are the biggest challenges right now in designing embedded systems for medical applications? 

SHEN: The most popular categories for medical devices using embedded systems are portable applications and applications that require high performance, such as medical imaging. However, in today’s shrinking economy, cost governs everything, and the overarching challenge is to make the most powerful yet most cost-effective and competitive device possible to ensure customers get the biggest bang for their buck. To achieve this, embedded systems designers face several challenges for designing portable medical applications:

  • Small form factor: Users demand smaller and smaller devices. Designers have to compress more capabilities into the same device footprint.
  • Power consumption: By their very nature, portable and/or handheld devices need a long active life fueled by the most economical power source possible.
  • Longevity of solution: Because agency approval processes can take as long as 18 months to two years and recertification is costly in terms of time, money, and the risk of failing to pass, it is essential to design embedded boards that not only meet and defeat all of the challenges, but also stay the course.
  • High degree of integration: As devices become smaller and more compact, board designers must seek ways to create an all-in-one package.
  • High computing/graphical power output and low power consumption: With colorful charts, graphs, and digital images, modern medical applications demand powerful engines to drive their devices, but high power consumption is no longer acceptable.
  • Firmware flexibility: The firmware must be robust enough to handle all the new features and flexible enough to work with a variety of operating systems.

SFF: What technologies and design strategies is Portwell using to overcome these challenges?

LAM: Key technologies can help meet the challenges involved in designing portable and high-performance medical applications:

  • Small form factor: The modular computing product portfolio can be expanded to include COM Express and Qseven.
  • High computing power with low power consumption: Designing with the latest Intel dual-core Atom processors fulfills the requirements for low-power embedded applications. Also, using an embedded controller provides an easy-to-implement, sophisticated power-saving mode.
  • Longevity: Components with long life-cycle support (seven-plus years) can be selected.
  • High integration: Integration can be maximized by implementing a high-density interface assembly at the design stage.
  • Firmware flexibility: Applying Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) BIOS can enable many new features on the latest microchips.

One example of a modular medical solution is based on the ultra-compact Qseven module. Portwell’s PQ7-M105IT (Figure 1) is designed with four options based on the Intel Atom E620T/E640T/E660T and E680T processor with 512 MB to 1 GB DDR2 SDRAM, LVDS display, four PCI Express x1 lanes, CAN SVDO, and up to 4 GB solid-state disk.

Figure 1: Portwell’s PQ7-M105IT outputs under 5 W for fanless applications and supports a wide -40 °C to +85 °C industrial temperature range.
(Click graphic to zoom)

SFF: Why are small form factors particularly useful in medical device design?

SHEN: Small form factors provide four major benefits to medical device design: space savings, power savings, upgradeability, and faster prototyping.

For the embedded systems board manufacturer designing the engine that drives medical devices for mobile and handheld applications, smaller is always better. Smaller modules enable greater mobility of medical services.

Small form factors not only save space, they also provide greater computing power at a lower cost. Benefiting from the Intel Atom processor microarchitecture, many small form factors can be designed to operate at very low power consumption (less than 10 W at full loading) and low heat, so they can be a truly fanless, battery-operated configuration. Furthermore, in a modular configuration where a host computer board is connected with its carrier board through a PCI Express interconnection, many of the modules are easy to upgrade, making the move to a future chipset and CPU feasible and economical.

Form factor is a key ingredient in the recipe for greater efficiency and economy. Getting a product to market quickly is vital for a medical device manufacturer who wants to stay ahead of the competition. With small form factors, design engineers can save valuable time on prototyping, testing, and system development, significantly reducing overall time to market. Proof of concept is easier and faster to implement, and engineers can design products with less material, which means lower cost.

SFF: What technology advances are needed to meet today’s health care needs?

LAM: Whatever the scope of the health care application, technology advances need to meet and surpass the rising demand for longevity, cost savings, noise and heat minimization, increased computing power (both numeric and graphic), and minimized downtime.

Many companies are already taking advantage of these advanced technologies. For example, modularized design helps increase time to market and time to revenue. Engineers save time because only the carrier board needs to be designed and implemented. Efforts dedicated to the processor and interface revolution can be minimized. This helps shorten the development time so the product can be delivered earlier.

The modular approach also means that the application itself can be easily upgraded or scaled up for future CPUs, increasing the flexibility of the microprocessor supply now and in the future. Portwell takes full advantage of this modular approach with products based on ETX, COM Express, and Qseven form factors. While the company produces products for all markets, approximately 30 percent of its embedded boards are designed for use in the medical arena. Both American Portwell and the Taiwan headquarters are certified to ISO 13485:2003 medical grade standards.

Frank Shen is product marketing director at American Portwell Technology, where he is responsible for product management and new market development. Frank has more than 18 years of product marketing experience in the embedded computing, industrial computing, and touch panel industries. He holds a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Southern California.

Jack Lam is senior product marketing manager for American Portwell Technology. He has 13 years of experience in industrial computing and embedded computing, ranging from technical support engineer and FAE to product management roles. Jack holds a BS in MIS from Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

American Portwell Technology