What is the real potential of innovative technologies like Extended Reality (XR) in the medical sector? Where are solutions already adding value and cutting costs? And why is XR technology the transformative approach medical manufacturers have been waiting for?
We spoke to William Harding, who is a Distinguished Technical Fellow at Medtronic, to get first-hand insights on how XR technology makes a difference in manufacturing, by simplifying operator training. He shares what challenges a medical device manufacturer must overcome to establish lean production processes and deliver high-quality products.
William is doing research on technology integration within Medtronic and leading the implementation of AR solutions at Medtronic’s facilities in Tempe, Arizona and Santa Clara, California.
RE’FLEKT: „What are some of today’s key challenges in the medical sector?“
William Harding (WH): „There are three major challenges that can be identified in the context of technology. First of all, we see an increased risk of human error due to a lack of training, which is itself due to the high rate at which innovative medical device technology is evolving. Secondly, there is a lack of technological adoption. Technology used today is often outdated and doesn’t integrate with the latest solutions. And thirdly, we identified an increase in time invested by healthcare professionals to manage medical records instead of taking care of the patient.“
RE’FLEKT: „How can innovative solutions using Mixed Reality (MR) help tackle the challenge of increased human error?“
WH: „For example, we have a set of digital simulators that train doctors to practice minimally invasive surgeries. Instead of practicing on the real patient, we use a hands-on simulator combined with a Microsoft HoloLens for increased vision. We found that doctors who first practiced on the simulator showed an error rate of 15% in the real surgery, compared to an 82% error rate in surgeries performed by doctors who hadn’t been trained on the simulator. That’s an example demonstrating how we can reduce human error in medical practice through better training.
At Medtronic, we consider healthcare to start with medical device manufacturing. That’s why we create solutions for training our own people to build the most reliable medical devices. This is another area where new technologies, including AR solutions from RE’FLEKT, are helping us to improve processes and reduce human error.“
RE’FLEKT: „In medical device manufacturing, a production line changeover is particularly error prone. What factors play a key role here? „
WH: „In manufacturing we have various stages of manual, semi-automatic, and automatic processes. Those processes must be transferred across many facilities where there is a lack of standardization around the data. If I add a new process to a production line, many questions need to be addressed: How do I get the process to integrate seamlessly (e.g., communication protocols, data aggregation, and data transformation)? How do I accomplish that without using paper-based systems? The goal is to speed up efficiencies and reduce scrap while also reducing human error. When we create a new process in lean manufacturing, we need to establish the most ergonomic way for an operator to perform their tasks within a sterile environment. We also want them to complete these tasks in the most efficient way possible, while delivering a high-quality product. There are many factors to be considered.“
RE’FLEKT: „What approach do you usually take when putting a new production process together, and how has AR changed this approach at Medtronic?“
WH: „To train our operators off the floor, we usually build what we call a ‘Six Sigma cardboard city’. It’s a replica of our real production set-up following the six-sigma approach to lean manufacturing. We use cardboard simply because it would be quite costly to replicate the set-up with real manufacturing equipment. Accordingly, with content creation platforms like REFLEKT ONE, we can now create AR applications that allow operators to learn a new process by walking through engaging training guides on a tablet instead of using our cardboard model.
Recently I created a solution to train operators on a manufacturing process for our Linq II battery bond (an implantable 2 lead EKG data recorder for patients). I made the content available to them online, where they could walk through it themselves and learn how to perform the process using gestures in AR. It’s a very fast and effective way of training because it saves resources and is so close to the real manufacturing environment.“
RE’FLEKT: „In addition to those benefits, what impact does the new AR training have on cost and time you need to invest?“
WH: „It used to take us two and a half weeks to build a cardboard set-up with five process stations. For one training session, we also needed at least eight to ten people off the production floor, who then weren’t engaged in manufacturing products while they were in training. It would cost us about $30,000 for one training effort with the cardboard set-up. We usually require five sessions in total to get everything right, and by the time we decide that everything is ready, we’re making changes five minutes later.
In contrast, creating AR content to train my colleagues took me less than two hours. They can access it individually whenever required (including in the manufacturing floor cleanroom environment) and we can easily adapt it if changes occur in the set-up.“
RE’FLEKT: „You also mentioned the challenges of technical adoption and time required for healthcare professionals to manage medical records. How do these connect?“
WH: „Medical records such as EMRs (Electronical Medical Records) and EHRs (Electronic Healthcare Records) were built to improve billing. Any attempt to digitize these records and integrate the information with other solutions was simply a digital version of the paper-based format. This makes the management of medical records for medical staff very time consuming as they transcribed the manually collected data or transferred the data between dissimilar systems. I found that doctors spend around 52% and nurses around 47% of their time transcribing health-related data from one system to another, which uses valuable time and skills that they could be investing in the patient. To truly connect devices and digitize our data, we need a transformative approach. That’s what XR technology offers.“
RE’FLEKT: „Taking a look at the current situation, what opportunities do you see for MR technology right now and in the future?“
WH: „During the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is now starting to realize that direct social interaction will not always be a suitable scenario. Of course, many of us who have been leading the charge within the AR/VR/MR technological space are now being heard.
Through the use of this technology in the future, I know that Medtronic will be able to more quickly understand the needs of patients, healthcare professionals, and payers needs, such that the life cycles of innovation are reduced in addressing those needs. That same point can be made within the medical device manufacturing industry, specifically as it relates to product and process transfers as well as in the training of the individuals responsible for completing the assembly of those devices. However, it is my belief that AR and eventually MR technology will make the use of VR less important because users will prefer the more relatable MR environments.“
RE’FLEKT: „Thank you very much for the interview, William!“
Foto: Medtronic Advanced Medical Training and Research Center, Shanghai, China – Credit: Medtronic