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ATL's debut of HDI 5000 heats up ultrasound's super-premium segment


New scanner features powerful supercomputed architectureJust when you thought it was safe to go shopping for an ultrasound scanner, along comes another company with a new super-premium system to consider. ATL Ultrasound last month became the

New scanner features powerful supercomputed architecture

Just when you thought it was safe to go shopping for an ultrasound scanner, along comes another company with a new super-premium system to consider. ATL Ultrasound last month became the latest vendor to roll out a new scanner with the introduction of HDI 5000, which brings 512-channel capability, supercomputed beamforming architecture, and artificial intelligence to the HDI product family.

HDI 5000 will replace HDI 3000 as ATL's flagship ultrasound scanner, and will carry a list price of $220,000 to $275,000. The system will be targeted at the super-premium ultrasound segment, which has seen a raft of new product introductions over the past year. The company anticipates that shipments of HDI 5000 will begin in the fourth quarter, and the product netted Food and Drug Administration 510(k) clearance in May (SCAN 7/9/97). A cardiology version, HDI 5000cv, will be introduced later this year.

In developing the new system, ATL greatly increased the computer processing power of its HDI platform. HDI 5000's supercomputed image processing unit, made up of application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) and dedicated digital signal processors, can process over 14 billion operations per second, compared with three to four billion operations per second on HDI 3000. The IPU also includes seven new ASICs designed for HDI 5000, with four of those incorporated into the beamformer. This power boost results in vastly improved gray-scale and color Doppler performance, according to Jim Brown, senior director of product management for the Bothell, WA, vendor.

With HDI 5000's Broadband Flow Imaging technique, the scanner utilizes broadband signals to increase sensitivity to weak and slower blood flows and provide flow profiling. The company also believes that the technique provides improvements in color Doppler frame rates, as well as temporal accuracy and resolution, Brown said. Down the road, ATL believes the technique could eventually lead to quantification of color Doppler displays.

HDI 5000 is also capable of MicroFine gray-scale imaging, which provides ultra-precise spatial processing and advanced textural processing to offer more subtle tissue information, along with dramatically reduced dot size in gray-scale imaging, according to the company.

Another intriguing capability on HDI 5000 is its ability to provide adaptive system intelligence. With the technique, called Intelligent Tissue Specific Imaging, the scanner automatically adjusts to image data received during the exam to optimize flash suppression and motion discrimination, Brown said.

"Instead of making assumptions on what algorithm to use or making compromises on the algorithm or flash-suppression scheme, in real time we're adapting to the gray-scale and flow information being detected and using the appropriate algorithms," Brown said. "Flash artifacts are virtually eliminated from the image."

Advanced capabilities available on HDI 3000, such as 3-D, harmonic contrast, and intraoperative imaging, will be available on HDI 5000. Minor modifications to the techniques were made to take advantage of the increased detail of the images from the new beamformer and supercomputed architecture, Brown said.

Transducer compatibility. Nearly all of HDI 3000's scanheads will be compatible with HDI 5000. In addition, HDI 5000 users will be able to utilize four new scanheads, such as the L12-5 transducer, which provides very high frequency scanning for small parts, breast, superficial vascular, and musculoskeletal applications, according to the company. The other new scanheads introduced along with HDI 5000 were the C5-2 curved-array scanhead for abdominal and obstetrical imaging, P4-2 phased-array scanhead for general cardiac imaging, and the P6-3 phased-array scanhead for intercostal access for vascular imaging. Since it is designed to exploit the beamforming capabilities of HDI 5000, P6-3 will only be available on the new scanner.

In terms of support for digital image management, HDI 5000 will offer the same capabilities as HDI 3000, which features the DiskLink, NetLink, and WebLink software packages. With DiskLink, HDI users can store digital images on magneto-optical disks, where the images can be accessed by workstations or by various printers. NetLink provides DICOM print storage class support, and allows users to transfer DICOM images over an Ethernet network, while WebLink enables the ultrasound system to function as a Web server. Users can then use Internet browser technology to pull images off the HDI system.

How does HDI 5000 stack up against other recent super-premium scanner introductions, such as Acuson's Sequoia, GE's Logiq 700 MR, and Siemens' Elegra? Vendors can introduce an alphabet soup of new acronyms and technologies, but image quality is what wows clinicians, and that doesn't transfer well into a press release.

Some inferences can be drawn from what's already known about HDI 5000 relative to its competition, however. For one thing, the ability to upgrade the installed base of HDI 3000 scanners to the HDI 5000 platform could be a powerful advantage that will likely lead to a residual revenue stream for ATL. There is no similar upgrade path linking the super-premium offerings of ATL's competition to their older installed bases. HDI 5000 also seems to enjoy a slight price advantage over other super-premium scanners, with Sequoia topping out at $350,000 and Logiq 700 MR at $300,000.

More importantly, HDI 5000 will shore up the competitive position of a company that was already holding its own in the cutthroat ultrasound market with a flagship scanner that was nearly three years old. While ATL may suffer a pause in scanner purchasing over the next few months as customers await the availability of HDI 5000, the new system should enable ATL to continue its momentum.

A week after the HDI introduction, ATL announced second-quarter financial results that showed revenues climbing slightly. For the period, ATL posted sales of $100.8 million, up 2.2% compared with $98.6 million in the same period the year before. The company had net income of $2.5 million, compared with a loss of $19.2 million in the second quarter of 1996, when it took a $29.6 million one-time charge to pay for patent litigation with SRI International. ATL said growth in sales of its HDI 3000 systems helped offset the transition of older products from its product line, as well as the loss of revenues from its Access digital image management business, which it sold to Eastman Kodak in April.

The financial results helped offset a recent decline in ATL's stock price, which fell sharply on July 14, the day HDI 5000 was introduced, after ATL said that costs associated with launching the system would probably result in a third-quarter loss of 10 to 20 a share, while revenues would be in the $90 million to $95 million range. ATL's stock dropped 15% on the news to close at $36.38 a share. It was trading at around $40.25 at the end of July.

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