AI, Robotics and 3D Printing: MedTech Takes Center Stage at Atlantic Design Manufacturing Expo

Walking into the vast cacophony of the Jacob Javits Center, I’d forgotten how easy it is to become overwhelmed at a trade show. Living up to it’s description as “the East Coast’s largest annual design and manufacturing event,” the floor was covered with over 400 booths, showcasing professionals and vendors in design, 3D printing, manufacturing robotics and packaging across almost every industry you can imagine. Something with this kind of breadth requires some forethought, some type of context to frame and curate this onslaught of information.

 
                                                                                              Eric Legaspi — man with a plan!

I should mention straightaway that I’m not in any of the fields where these technologies are implemented (and I most certainly don’t develop these technologies). I’m a musician. But I’m also eternally curious about the world I live in and in understanding how what these emerging technologies are and how they will impact our world immediately and in the future. So let’s get started.

The Atlantic Design, Manufacturing Expo 2017, an annual conference produced by UBM that visits several cities across the US, made its way to New York City last week and drew over 9,000 attendees (engineers, executives, and suppliers) looking for information, inspiration, and to connect with others in 3D printing, robotics and medical technologies (this year’s themes and, undoubtedly, three of the hottest emerging technology sectors).

But this year, the events team wanted to do something a bit different: draw and engage the general public and local communities to come out and learn about the new technologies in a way that the event hasn’t necessarily done before (which is huge, considering the event is primarily for industry executives, developers and suppliers). That’s where Tech 2025 came in. Event organizers reached out to partner with Tech 2025 to draw our community to the event (primarily the general public) and to bring our popular workshop format their Expo attendees.

As a partner and sponsor of the Expo, we produced a presentation panel for the event on a topic relevant to both Expo attendees and to our Tech 2025 audience: “Hacking Industrial Robots in the IoT Factories of the Future: Are Companies Prepared for the Risks?” with guest speakers Marcello Poglian (Politiecnico Di Milano and lead researcher on the much-cited report, “Rogue Robots: Testing the Limits of an Industrial Robot’s Security” and Ed Maguire, Managing Partner at Bluemont Partners).

 
                      Marcello Poglian, Charlie Oliver, and Ed Maguire at Tech 2025 presentation panel.

Our presentation panel, which was held the first day of the event at the Javits, was a success and lots of fun. But we came to the event with another agenda in mind as well. We decided to take our Free Expo Pass and explore the event to see what ordinary people who are not in these specialized technical fields can learn from the event. With over 400 exhibits, dozens of workshops, panels, a keynote by Steve Wozniak (coFounder of Apple), and social events, this was a challenge, to say the least!

Thankfully, we had a plan going in and a focus for the day — advancements in Medical Technology (MedTech) and how emerging technologies are changing the healthcare industry by leaps and bounds. With the event’s emphasis on 3D printing and robotics, MedTech was on prime display which gave us plenty to see and do (plus, it was a good departure from discussing the usual applications of these technologies in the manufacturing sector — which was also a focal point of the event).

MedTech is something everyone can related to and should definitely try to stay up on as much as possible. Unlike driverless cars or advanced AI, many of us out there have come face-to-face with this field, our loved ones have benefited from these innovations and it is, in many ways, much more intimate and consequential to our lives now, and this will only increase as we steamroll into the future. Though I only had one day (out of the 3-day event) to experience what could have easily been a week-long experience, I was fortunate to get a diverse sampling of what the show had to offer so, let’s jump right in.

Panel Discussion: The Reality of What’s Possible with Collaborative Robots and What’s Still in the Works

 

Unlike our stereotypical image of robotics — superior, autonomous machines created to make us obsolete — Collaborative Robots [CoBots] are designed to assist humans in a variety of functions, with limited autonomy, allowing us to become the sought after trifecta of better-faster-stronger at what we’re trying to accomplish on the job. They’re most commonly deployed in warehouses and — you guessed it — medical fields with an obviously large focus on safety, and the panel reflected this. Hosted by Chris Wilitz (Managing Editor, Design News, UBM), the panel featured Brian Dillman from Universal Robots (the #1 manufacturer of CoBots worldwide), Kevin McCann from Omron (safety integration), John Santagate from IDC Manufacturing Insights, and Bruce Lichorowic from Galen Robotics (surgical CoBots).

Generally, CoBots are on the ascent in terms of technological innovation, deployment and visibility. Advances in both visual and motion control have made these machines more effective and — most importantly — much safer to operate, which then increases demand from manufacturers, warehouses and hospitals, with greater human interaction and prominence in the media not far behind. And in terms of context, it’s good to think of these machines as more refined Segways — instead of moving on their own volition, they read the motion of their human operator and augment it using Artificial Intelligence.

Specifically, when it comes to surgery and the apprehension that some might have with robots cutting into and around vital organs, Bruce Lichorowic commented that CoBots “can turn a decent surgeon into a good surgeon, and a good surgeon into a great one.” Considering the anxiety that comes with hearing the words “decent surgeon,” it should be somewhat heartening to hear that these machines are becoming more prevalent in operating rooms around the country, even to the point of insurance companies preferring experienced surgeons using these robots.

Two of the most prominent CoBots in circulation right now are Mako(specializing in orthopedics) and DaVinci, assisting in a wide variety of common procedures over the last 20 years. If you’re still getting a little hot under the collar about the idea of robots performing surgery on you, here’s something that should be somewhat reassuring: one of the ways surgical robots are tested and refined is by teaching them to effectively peel grapes — a huge challenge in terms of dexterity.

Robots are also also commonly used to create “target areas” during surgeries to help surgeons become more accurate during a procedure. And lastly, even after lengthy development with Universities like Johns Hopkins, the FDA requires over a year of testing and certification in order for robots to be deployed for use in and on the general public in a medical setting.

Considering this long lead time, manufacturing and warehousing will likely be leading the charge on CoBots in the future. Manufacturing CoBots are probably even further from what we think as traditional robots as they’re often much smaller and lighter than their industrial counterparts — think PC’s with an arm — and are doing everything from packing cases of beer and managing inventory, to constructing large scale machinery. As they become more and more common in the workplace, much of the programming and safety protocols are being developed well before the machine ever hits a factory floor, increasing safety and usability and decreasing barriers to adoption.

CoBots are being equipped with advanced collision detection — stopping or slowing a load as it registers an obstruction — and there is a lot of emphasis being placed on collision avoidance, utilizing sensors to create a “safe zone” that will control the robot’s speed based on proximity to workers and other objects. Some companies are even developing pressure-sensitive skin on robotic hands and arms to increase receptiveness to both the operator and the material being handled. Owners are also looking for CoBots to become even smaller and more adaptable over time, allowing for a single machine to be moved and re-fitted easily, which will allow for more tasks to be completed in less time with a single machine.

This all has significant implications for the future of manufacturing, healthcare, logistics, and the economy as a whole. And it’s pretty exciting considering how much things will change (for the better) as more and more robots are implemented across industries. Brian Dillman cited a projection that around 1.4 million jobs will be left unfulfilled in the near future due to a skills gap between what is needed and how many workers are trained for specific tasks and processes — or simply what was termed “dirty, dangerous and dull” tasks that humans are less-inclined to engage in.

Automation and blended workplaces — utilizing this human/machine cooperation — will likely play a large role in filling that gap, and we can expect to see other industries — like food and pharmacies — deploy CoBots as well. This all means that we’ll have to begin to get more comfortable and knowledgeable with these machines, and the industry is moving aggressively to create training programs and curriculum at every level of education, not only vocational schools and colleges, but also STEM programs in high schools and even grade schools to get this technology into our hands even earlier. End of the day, there’s no shortage of fear around this impending wave of robotics, but as we learned during the panel, adding robotics into a workplace doesn’t have to mean removing a human, and with greater attention to education, we’ll maintain a healthy attitude about what what robots can and can’t do and how we can upskill to meet growing demands to work with CoBots!

We asked the panel one question: How do they see the general public and students being educated about robotics and how important is it? Below is their answer (you think you know, but you have no idea!).

The Science and Technology of Skin: Challenges of Long Wear Adhesives

This ended up being an incredibly technical lecture by a representative from 3M on the minutiae of how they test and develop adhesives for all manner of medical applications, so I’ll avoid getting into the weeds. Besides, while this talk is clearly meant for medical practitioners, I have not lost sight of our goal in attending this: to get practical information that will help the layperson to understand what the new technologies are and how they’re being deployed. I’m a musician, not a doctor.

It’s good to start with the fact that human skin is an incredibly challenging material to work with. It’s constantly changing — we shed skin continually, it stretches and contracts, there are wrinkles and hair and varying levels of sweat to interfere with getting good contact — and everyone’s skin is different, with varying levels of sensitivity.

3M runs their adhesives through a battery of tests usually covering parts of their own (obviously dedicated) employees with a variety of different materials for different durations — seven, ten and 21 days — with close monitoring of any potential irritation or discomfort, and ending with a “peel test” — exactly what it sounds like — to determine how easily they’re removed. After all of this, the variance between different materials turns out to be rather low but did amount to some basic profiles.

We spent most of our time in the presentation learning about four different materials commonly used in this field. Natural rubber was the first material to see wide application, though it isn’t as prevalent as it used to be. Synthetic rubber came next, good for a quick fix but not as effective over the long term. Acrylate adhesives were described as the “work horse” of the business, featuring a low initial adhesive stick that builds up over time. And lastly, there’s silicone adhesive, the best choice for sensitive skin, providing effective initial contact with adhesion that usually lasts about three days.

There were a great deal of highly detailed charts and graphs, all described in quick succession with a lot of industry jargon — but suffice it to say that 3M does a great deal of work to ensure we’re as comfortable and protected as possible with a band aid, sensor monitor or any other type of wearable medical device.

MedTech Innovation Tour

This was one of the more effective activities of the day for me, showcasing a curated selection of five of the most innovative products on the floor, as voted on by participants in the conference. Again, the Jacob Javits Center is vast and easy to get lost in, so having a pre-determined route with a guide was extremely helpful. And being able to touch and fiddle with the technologies up-close-and-personal as we learned about them was particularly effective and helpful. Though there were great features to each of the selections, two stood out most for me.

The first was a coaxial cable developed by Hitachi that looks to be a significant leap forward for a wide range of medical devices, and they featured this cable specifically for the tour in order to give visibility to their commitment to social innovation. As with hardware in other areas, the market is driving these devices to become ever smaller without sacrificing fidelity and accuracy in their output and operation. The scale is truly impressive — we’re talking microns here — with cables being produced that are thinner than a human hair.

                                           Hitachi Coaxial Cable

The inner structure is similar to what you’d expect from any other cable, except it was much, much thinner. Hitachi developed a special silver/copper alloy to maximize efficiency — good to note that conductivity is the main metric here as any signal that is lost during transmission from one area to the next can lead to errors or failures in the device. The inner filament and outer casing is also extremely heat resistant, which is vitally important for devices that need to be sterilized before use.

These are being used in a variety of ways, though heart monitors and endoscopies — procedures where doctors use small cameras to view various parts of your internal plumbing — are most common. Another interesting point, given the incredibly small size of these cables, is that they’re handled with highly trained professionals using lasers to cut and strip them for assembly with the rest of a device. It’s not enough to simply manufacturing this wire, Hitachi also had to develop specialized processes to integrate them into the rest of the marketplace.

The second product came from a company called Liquidmetal that has a potentially-revolutionary process to create a wide variety of components that can be used in a host of different applications — and yes, the reference to the T-1000 from Terminator 2 wasn’t lost on anyone. It starts with a unique, Zirconium-based alloy they developed that is not only twice as strong as titanium, but can also remain flexible and extremely low weight. Most metals have what’s called a crystalline inner structure which leads to cracks when the material fails. Liquidmetal’s has an amorphous inner structure, closer to the properties of glass, that makes it more pliable, adaptable and resistant to failures. It’s also resistant to rust, corrosion and scratches.

The alloy is injected into a mold, not unlike plastic, and cooled to produce a component. The interesting part is that the metal maintains its shape throughout the process without any significant variance after cooling, unlike other materials, which leads to much more precise and efficient production. Additionally, it’s incredibly recyclable — around 80% of waste can be re-used for other components — so the material is also more sustainable than traditional substances. The molding process also allows for the production of complex shapes that would be difficult and expensive to create in traditional machining, and again, without the commensurate waste or difficulty in quality control that comes repeatedly cranking out a high volume of pieces.

Liquidmetal can currently be found inside iPhones and Swatches, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see applications in other consumer products, automobiles, aerospace, construction, robotics, or — as was their motivation at the conference — medical devices. Really, any field where precision, durability, sustainability and high quality materials are needed could stand to benefit from the addition of Liquidmetal components.

Medical Design Excellence Awards

I ended my day at the Medical Design Excellence Awards which was open to all attendees at the event, featuring top products voted on by a jury composed of clinicians, engineers and designers. The show spanned a wide range of applications — Drug Delivery, Implant and Tissue Replacement, Rehabilitation, ER and OR Tools, digital health and more — with Bronze, Silver and Gold awards. This could span an entire post, but let’s just run through some of the winners.

One of the more intriguing winners was Geri, an automated in vitro fertilization device. Embryo’s are, obviously, fragile organisms that need to avoid any change in temperature or environment outside of an incubator. Geri is the first incubator to include imaging technology, giving doctors a high-resolution timelapse of a developing embryo, allowing them to assess it’s progress and administer care without removing it from it’s protected environment.

The gold for Diagnostics went to SAMBA. Originally developed as an HIV testing kit, the device is built for quick and efficient testing at the “point of care,” allowing for doctors to diagnose and treat a potential illness in the same place in a much faster time. The biggest implications here are not only that it can be fitted and programmed to detect all manner of diseases, but also, given it’s self-contained nature, it can be deployed in isolated areas where this type of diagnostic wouldn’t have been possible before, extending treatment to more people throughout the world.

Best in show went to Endolite Linx, an advanced prosthetic leg that is filled with sensors and actively manages its wearers motion. It’s easy to forget the complexity of walking, especially over uneven terrain or up and down hills or stairs; but we’re acutely aware of the pain caused throughout the body when the leg or foot is out of wack, and even standing or sitting requires some form of support from our legs. Linx has a built-in microprocessor that allows the foot and knee to basically talk to each other continually and adjust its orientation, placement and support through a battery-powered hydraulic system. Put simply, Linx incorporates a vast amount of technology to give amputees a much greater quality of life.

You can view a full list of the finalists here, but as a son of a doctor and a nurse, I want to applaud all of these companies for the dedication they showed to patient care worldwide. The complexity and difficulty in this field is enormous, and the effort to overcome obstacles no less daunting. Tying your success and livelihood to these pursuits is no small feat.

Conclusions

As mentioned in the intro, there was a lot to take in, and much of it is intimately consequential to our lives. In this sense, it’s so important to give the general public some sense of access to events this event without it being intimidating (and it’s the primary reason Tech 2025 participated). I wish I could have taken a little more time to become familiar with some of the terminology surrounding this field, and some extra planning and research can go a long way in guiding you to a diverse and informative experience. But there are also opportunities for organizers to take the lead and provide small tweaks to their programming that can increase engagement.

Firstly, having one program day fall on a weekend would allow people from other industries and fields the chance to experience the show without having to miss work. Providing a glossary of terms or guide online ahead of time would greatly assist in the research/prep I mentioned earlier. And lastly, having more guided tours would be a huge help. They can be curated for almost any interest, and I felt there could be a great option of incorporating a narrative to connect these different booths — the lifecycle of a product, the treatment of a patient — to really bring a sense of real-world context that people can take back into their lives and share with others.

All this being said, and we have said a lot here, I’d encourage everyone to take a little more notice into this field and take every opportunity to learn about emerging technologies at big conferences (especially when they offer a free Expo Pass like UBM did here). Every one of us will be a patient at some point in our lives, and the first step in treatment will always be education. We’ll be doing our best to help further this goal, so until next time, stay curious, stay informed, and stay connected.

Events Manager, Blogger, Strategist, Musician

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