Lasers and medical devices: A match made in heaven

Nov. 5, 2013
A follow-up to the Medical Device Manufacturing conference in Minneapolis last week.
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"Medical Alley" is the term used to refer to the network of advanced medical device firms located around Minneapolis, MN. This area is well known as a 'hot spot' for medical device R&D and manufacturing and as such is an ideal location for the regional Medical Device Manufacturing Conference held every fall.

Why is this area so heavily invested in the medical device marketplace? Historically, for more than 100 years, advanced research and care centers like the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota have attracted considerable talent and investment. One of the earliest players in the commercial sector is also one of the largest medical device companies in the world: Medtronic, founded in 1949. Over the years, a number of other companies/spin-offs such as Boston Scientific and St. Jude Medical have emerged, making this geographic area well known for quality care and innovation. And, because of this large market, there are a number of local laser vendors for systems [for example, Innovative Laser Technologies (ILT)] and job shops (Spectralytics, SSDI, and Avicenna, to name a few).

For Laser Jocks, the MDM show week is kicked off the night before at ILT in Fridley, conveniently located just a few blocks from Medtronic's world headquarters. This is a privately sponsored event where laser/electro-optic vendors are urged to set up table-top displays (at no charge), talk with visitors, drink and eat killer food, and listen to cool jazz music. In fact, many of the vendors don't even set up a booth at the show itself as the quality of the people at the ILT reception is so high.

While the show itself is much smaller than, for instance, the West (February in Anaheim) or East (June in NYC) shows, the overall quality of the attendees is very high and people are coming for the most part to "buy." Laser vendors were mostly set up in the Laser Pavilion area, but could also be found scattered at other places around the hall. Even with the large number of local laser vendors, it still seems there is enough business to pull in companies from the East and West Coasts and the South that provide services or equipment that cannot be gotten locally.

One particularly interesting local visit that I made was to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, about 2 hours south of MN. It was started in the late 1800s as a center for patient care and became widely acclaimed for two simple reasons - anesthesia and longevity - in other words, the patients were in no pain and they did not die! This sounds pretty simple for 2013, but in 1880 this was revolutionary stuff!

The Mayo Clinic spends over $500 million per year on R&D and is the first and largest integrated non-profit in the world. It has also consistently made the Forbes Top 100 places to work. The device engineering laboratories are amazing and feature lasers for many different applications.

Here are two of my favorite:

  1. Using electrical signals directed into the brain (using probes) to 'cure' Parkinson's disease and other disorders. In order to have a successful operation, the patient must be awake, and in one extreme case, a concert violinist had the procedure while awake and playing his violin on the operating table. Lasers are used in the manufacturing of these probes.
  2. Using CAT scans, life size replicas of human organs can be manufactured using laser additive technology. This is especially useful in separating conjoined twins. Researchers can give the surgeons actual life-size models which they can use to determine the best cutting paths before the patient is even opened, which mitigates risk and saves time on the operating floor.

In the upcoming months, I hope to present details of both of the above procedures as well as perhaps others. Laser processing and medical devices – a match made in heaven!


I am always interested in hearing your thoughts concerning laser micromachining, the laser industry, comments on entrepreneurial endeavors, etc. AND … we are always looking for fresh, publishable material. Please feel free to contact me at [email protected].

About the Author

Ron Schaeffer

Ron Schaeffer, Ph.D., is a blogger and contributing editor, and a member of the Laser Focus World Editorial Advisory Board. He is an industry expert in the field of laser micromachining and was formerly Chief Executive Officer of PhotoMachining, Inc. He has been involved in laser manufacturing and materials processing for over 25 years, working in and starting small companies. He is an advisor and past member of the Board of Directors of the Laser Institute of America. He has a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from Lehigh University and did graduate work at the University of Paris. His book, Fundamentals of Laser Micromachining, is available from CRC Press.

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