This year marks the 200th anniversary of the stethoscope, which has maintained the same basic design created by French physician Rene Laennec after he sought to protect a young female patient’s modesty. The old way that doctors listened to hearts and lungs was to press their ear against their patient’s chest.
In Frederick, Maryland, there is the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. All the medical devices and equipment displayed in that museum are younger than the stethoscope by several decades.
As amazing as the stethoscope’s longevity streak has been, electrical engineer Clive Smith is pushing for its original design to retire. Striving to dramatically improve the audio quality, he developed the Thinklabs One Digital Stethoscope that uses a high-intensity electric field (almost 1 million volts per meter) to measure vibrations.
“You can barely hear anything when you use a regular stethoscope,” asserts Smith. “The sound is very distant and faint. When you use a digital stethoscope, it’s significantly amplified. Instead of saying ‘Can I hear that sound? What is that sound?,’ you’re more focused on what IS the sound. What’s the diagnosis? There’s no reason in this age of electronics and amplification why doctors should struggle to hear what’s going on.”
Harvard Medical School Prof. Elazer Edelman likens the audio improvement to the difference between AM radio and digital radio.
For the first time, patients can now listen to their heart and lungs as the doctor is listening.
The Thinklabs One can be connected to an external speaker and any computer, tablet or phone – turning the stethoscope from a “private hearing aid” to a “transcendent teaching tool.”
“Projected sounds also engage our patients, for they hear what we hear (often for the first time) and appreciate what we are doing (also often for the first time), which binds them to us and us to them,” Dr. Edelman writes in the New England Journal of Medicine. “One patient with severe mitral regurgitation commented, ‘No doctor has ever offered to let me listen. Now I can hear what makes me feel this way, and for that I thank you.’”
How Onshape Helps Thinklabs Improve Its Manufacturing
The Thinklabs One is now being used by clinicians at medical institutions around the world, including Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Mayo Clinic, NIH Clinical Center, Massachusetts General Hospital and Johns Hopkins University Hospital. All Thinklabs parts are made and assembled in house at their Colorado facility.
Although the company’s first digital scope was created with a traditional desktop-installed CAD system, Smith has since migrated to fully cloud-based CAD. His primary design tool for the next-generation Thinklabs stethoscope is now Onshape, the first browser-based professional 3D CAD system to run on any computer, tablet or phone.
“Our company is all cloud based. We’re running Chromebooks and Netbooks and now any one of our production people can use Onshape while they are building our product,” he says. “Let’s say they are building something and they think, ‘You know, it would be really convenient if we had a jig that holds the frame that holds the product in a certain way.’ They can just hop on Onshape and design something and 3D print it. They can print a tool that they need for production.”
Thinklabs is now creating an improved stethoscope headphone design in Onshape that includes new features requested by doctors. CEO Clive Smith says Onshape enables “our production people to do production design. They can design the production processes and improve it themselves.”
“3D printing liberates the design of our products. And Onshape in many ways liberates our production people to be very creative,” he adds. “We’re no longer tied to one computer. The old way was being forced to share what one of my engineering friends calls ‘the shrine.’”
“You go to the powerful computer with the copy of installed CAD software and you sit down and figure out who’s going to get a turn. We have a very open office plan. What happens now is that everyone can just pick any computer and say ‘I’m going to design and 3D print this part and see if it makes our production more efficient.’”
Smith says he manufactures parts with 3D printing rather than injection molding, allowing Thinklabs to rapidly deploy design changes as they happen. “When I discovered Onshape,” he says, “I was absolutely blown away you could have this kind of powerful CAD run inside a browser. I thought it was revolutionary.”
(To further explore how full-cloud CAD helps Thinklabs save time and money throughout the design and manufacturing process, read the full article at Onshape’s Customer Stories page.)