Design News interviews Steve Kennelly, senior manager of Microchip's Medical Products Group
Design News: When it comes to electronics, are engineers in the medical industry early adopters, late adopters or somewhere in between?
Kennelly: You have companies all along the spectrum. Some are doing things in new ways and creating devices that did not exist before. They're very accepting of new technology and jump on things as fast as they are available. And there are companies working on more established designs that are a bit more conservative as they don't want to get through the whole approval process only to learn they have to change some aspect of their design right away.
How does the pacing compare to a market like consumer electronics?
One reason we have a dedicated medical group is that the clock speed here is so different due to the regulatory process. One thing we need to manage is the basic disconnect between our natural way of doing things — which is fast development cycles — and a market that may not always want to see change happen quickly. That means things like continuing to supply parts long after a replacement is available.
What types of devices is your 16-bit microcontroller with a DSP core being designed into?
A variety of different products, from imaging equipment to surgical tools to insulin pumps and even hospital beds. Basically it's any application where engineers want to control a brushless dc motor at high speed, and that's because the DSP core on the microcontroller gives them the ability to do the required math. That eliminates the need for a secondary, external sensor, which simplifies the design and lowers the total cost.
How are you making it easier for engineers to apply the technology?
One of the goals we had in developing this family of MCUs was to simplify the task of doing real-time control with a DSP. DSPs are good at fast math and MCUs in general are good at communication and control, and our goal was to combine the best of both in a way that didn't add too much complexity to the design process. I think we met that goal — the part went into production in 2004 and not long after that the first medical applications popped up.
How far can you push the technology in terms of processing capability, smaller geometries, and the like?
We are not yet pushing the edge in either geometry or performance. In fact, we tend to be a step back from the edge as most of the applications today in the medical space are not looking for something that requires huge processing power. We are playing in the embedded space, and the key goal here is to hit the sweet spot between performance and cost.
Is there anything surprising about the medical market?
The range of applications and the creative ways that engineers come up with to apply our technology constantly amazes me. We recently worked with a company, for example, that is developing a laser-based, skin-treatment device for home use. The engineers came up with a really clever way to use our technology and at the same time develop a device that's cost-effective enough for home use.