Archive for July, 2007

Medical Product Opportunity

Monday, July 30th, 2007 Michael Barr

My wife and I recently had a new baby boy (our second; thanks! =). At the hospital, I couldn’t help noticing just how primitive much of the equipment in use is by modern standards. Of course, from the point of view of the hospital staff this stuff is positively state-of-the-art! But as an electronics designer, I know better.

Take for example the fetal heart monitor. The state-of-the-art features include that the doctors and nurses can simultaneously monitor up to nine fetal heartbeats in laboring women from one PC screen–from wherever they are on the floor. The hopelessly outdated reality is that the sensor itself is constantly losing the heartbeat; one nurse must actively attend each laboring woman simply to move the sensor around.

What a pain for a mom-to-be! Here she is in some of the worst discomfort/pain of her life. She’s thankful there is such a system as it’s reassuring that a professional is keeping tabs on the stress level of the baby insider her during all this. But then every 5-10 minutes the nurse is climbing all over her to move the sensor around until it can “lock onto” the baby’s heartbeat again.

Better idea (free to a good home): how about a sensor “belt” with an array of heartbeat pickups (simple mics?) and an attached embedded computer. The computer could simply monitor all of the mics and route the strongest signal up to the printer and network.

Even better idea: make this belt contain the wireless broadcast feature–instead of attaching it to a five pound box on the IV cart.

What is your great product idea?

Embedded Systems Rule the Earth

Friday, July 13th, 2007 Michael Barr

It is estimated (for example, by WSTS) that 9 billion processors were manufactured last year. That’s a 50% jump from the pre-2001 peak (i.e., prior to the Dot Com bubble crash). This is quite an impressive growth rate when considered in light of the financial market indices; DJIA and S&P500 have only recently come back to their pre-2001 peaks while Nasdaq remains solidly underwater.

Part of the reason for this is that there is growth in sales of the most visible computers. PCs, Macs, and other general-purpose computers sell in the 100-200 million unit per year range. And these generally each contain several DSPs and microcontrollers in the peripherals attached to the main microprocessor. Being generous then, perhaps 10% of the world’s annual processor production can be explained by general-purpose computer sales.

However, the bulk of the growth is happening in the field of invisible computers; that is, processors embedded within other kinds of products–from cell phones to appliances to medical devices. Every year, as the price of basic computing power goes down, new applications emerge at the low end–in products that didn’t historically have processors inside them. For example, Freescale has noticed a recent trend like this in mechanical systems and launched several marketing efforts (see, and their own microsite) to reach mechanical engineers needing processors for the first time. Texas Instruments is focusing its microcontroller marketing efforts on a similar trend in medical devices.

Although an article on the “invisble processors” phenomenon at ExtremeTech is several years out of date, I still value its analogy of embedded systems as insects. In biology, it is well known that insects far outnumber birds, fish, mammals, and all the other “visible” life on Earth. It seems that in the world of computers, embedded systems are the invisible class that outnumbers all others. And like insects, embedded systems come in millions of shapes and sizes.