Is a Silicone-Free Future Just Around the Corner?

Not a reference to breast augmentation, but to the digital scanning solutions that were the big story at AAA’s Audiology Now! conference.

The holy grail of “digital impressioning” has been conceptual manna from heaven for years: Could this mean less consumables? Less junk to carry around? A less invasive procedure for patients? Faster turnaround? A better product? More theatre and added value? Greater productivity?

It’s Coming – Ready or not.

In answer to these questions and the initial question of whether we can all hang up our syringes in time for the Olympics, the answer is maybe……. Or maybe not.

At PC Werth, we have been involved with impressioning and custom products for a few years now – so we know a thing or two about what makes a good impression and good product. [A simple (if highly biased) guideline is to stick with Dreve materials bought from us (the material is excellent, and we look after you with prompt despatch and proper batch coding, ensuring you get fresh material, with plenty of shelf life, which is important). You should also use a quality mould lab, like ours (be it for noise filters, earmoulds, ear-bud sleeves and so on). The final blatant plug is that you can now buy online too – same backup, but with a clean online experience and all that.

3DM In Ear Scanner

3DM ear scanning system

So given we like to think we know our meatal onions and second bend sausages, here is our impartial overview of the in-ear scanning systems presented at Audiology Now! My apologies for any inaccuracies – put me right at
info@pcwerth.co.uk

Are you ready yet?

What was interesting about these contenders is that none are quite ready yet and that that each takes a different view of the market. They are all very innovative and considered in their approach to a market that audiologists have come to regard as the most commoditised part of their role. Each solution below is potentially a disruptive innovation – for better or for worse.

Lantos Technologies

The Lantos system made the biggest splash at the conference – a fact not unrelated to the amount of sponsorship and its presence on one of the hearing aid stands, for you marketers out there – although they didn’t have it all their own way, as you will see from the next contender.

In essence, the Lantos device – a spin out from technology meisters at MIT (so the innovation pedigree is impressive) – is a hand held unit that is an integrated otoscope and scanning system that takes a dynamic (i.e. moving/video) image. A probe with an inflatable condom  is inserted into the canal, the condom is pumped full of fluid and the handset scans the inside surface of the inflated condom as the unit’s lens retracts from the canal. The retraction is automated (i.e. requires no elbow grease) and the user “paints” the image of the inside of the canal on screen to build up the dynamic image of the moving canal.

So full marks here for an amazingly complex piece of design (as an engineer, I loved this), in that the handheld unit has optics, pumps, motors and Lord knows what else packed inside. It also looked very impressive as a piece of industrial design. Lantos also leap the cross-contamination barrier with their disposable balloon concept, although this does mean there are consumables involved and there is definitely a technique required. That said, getting an image of the moving canal will be invaluable to mould labs producing mould that fits all eventualities.

The Lantos website is here.

3DM Systems

3DM Systems won AAA’s coveted “best in show” award and presented a hugely busy stand to the world, complete with public demonstrations, which was an admirable show of face from this Georgia-Tech spinout.

The units on trial were technology demonstrators and essentially consisted of a narrow laser scanning probe inserted into the canal as a scanner. The probe is then withdrawn steadily, scanning the canal. The scan was taken with the jaw closed (from memory), and the cartilaginous movement would be “accounted for by system software” to create an accurate impression for manufacture.

So 3DM certainly got the nod for an intuitive concept and seemed to get appreciative “ahhs” and head inclinations from their business model that seems to focus more on charging for the output of this now-award winning system, rather than for the hardware itself.

 

3-Shape

3-Shape would have preferred to have had a couple more months before showing their wares, I suspect – all for entirely positive reasons and to take advantage of some inherent competitive advantages.

For a start, they are a known quantity and already supply our industry, so their need for a big song and dance was a little less urgent. They are also already in the earmould scanner business, so they know a thing or two about lasers, optics and active scanning (we use their scanners in our London Laboratories). They also know about audiology business on an international scale. Finally, 3 Shape also has experience establishing the aftercare and support network required for this sort of instrument. A not inconsiderable knowledge bank, then.

And in another positive scenario, 3-Shape already supply in-mouth scanner systems to the dental market. This unit informs the design and of their ear-scanner.

During demonstrations, an impressive aspect of 3-Shape was how intuitive it was to use. Perhaps a little large in the hand, the unit really is a case of “insert into canal, paint the image onto the screen and you’re done”. The image is static, so you may have to do this jaw open and closed, to secure an understanding of canal flexation. Intuitive, quick, easy (and patient friendly?) were definitely high points. Some pretty mind-blowing software also means that you can stop the scan at any stage (patient got a tickly nose?) and pick up where you left off, before using the hand unit as a gyroscopic joystick to rotate your scan on screen to check it. With no consumables and a simple USB connection to your (very graphics friendly) laptop, the 3-Shape solution has much to commend it, like its competitors. At this stage, there was no word on business model or price.

3-Shapes website is here

Who has the Answer to Digital Ear Impressions?

So there you have it – all 3 different solutions on the cusp of readiness and all bringing their own answers and some questions that we are so used to: Calibration? Price? Consumables? After sales support? Training? Initial expense? Ongoing expense? Quality? Performance? F uture-proofness? Adaptability? And so on…..

In answer to the original question then, (and as with video otoscopes like our Dino-Lites): yes, in-ear scanning will happenone day. When each particular audiologist takes the plunge is up to them, but there are months of final development to go yet, I suspect, and then a consideration is the relevance to individual needs and business volumes.

Alternatively, the complexity may be a challenge – after all, there is much to commend the traditional simplicity of a physical model of someone’s ear, not to mention the fact that once you have a syringe, some stops and props, all you need is some silicone.

 So even if scanning is just around the corner, I suspect silicone is there too, holding its hand.

And the final word from us is that this is evidently a complex subject: as with impressioning and technical instrument supply , it needs dedicated expertise and backup – none of these solutions are “sell and forget” accessories. Considering the technology options and potential commitment here, this is probably more the case than ever.

 

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