Future brightens for DRC as component issues resolve

September 15, 1999

Vendor moves forward with retrofit, complete systemsDigital x-ray developer Direct Radiography Corp. has struggled for much of the past year, but the company appears to have turned the corner. Supplier problems for both its flat-panel detector and

Vendor moves forward with retrofit, complete systems

Digital x-ray developer Direct Radiography Corp. has struggled for much of the past year, but the company appears to have turned the corner. Supplier problems for both its flat-panel detector and major components of its general radiography system are over, say executives at the company, which was acquired by Waltham, MA-based Hologic earlier this year (SCAN 5/12/99). Additionally, DRC has a healthy backlog of about two dozen orders.

A major relief was the signing of a long-term supply agreement with a major manufacturer of thin-film transistors (TFT). On Sept. 9, Newark, DE-based DRC announced that LG-LCD, a leader in the production of TFTs and LCD panels, had been signed to provide the basic substructure of the DirectRay flat-panel detector. This substructure, the TFT arrays, record the electronic signals that correspond to x-rays striking the flat panel. DRC staff coat the TFTs with amorphous selenium, which produces the signals. Customized electronics built into the flat panel receive and transmit these signals for their conversion into radiographic images.

The partnership between these two companies was preceded by an interim agreement, which led to the creation of TFTs that have already been delivered to DRC. Some of those have already been used to make detectors (SCAN 4/14/99). LG-LCD appears to have the corporate stamina and technological commitment that was lacking in Direct Radiography’s previous partner, Optical Imaging Systems, whose exit from the TFT business last year raised questions about the stability of component supply for DirectRay-based products (SCAN 9/30/98).

LG-LCD is a primary manufacturer of the video screens built into laptop computers. The company, which also makes flat-panel televisions, is owned by Korea-based LG Corp., a $73 billion conglomerate with 126,000 employees in more than 120 countries. Production requirements for DirectRay’s TFTs are relatively modest, compared to the quantities of other products made by LG-LCD.

“They can do our annual demand in about half a day on their production lines,” said Jim Culley, DRC marketing director.

TFT arrays are being built into the DirectRay flat-panel detector, which is part of DRC’s iiRAD DR1000C dedicated chest system and iiRAD DR1000 general radiography system. LG-LCD and Direct Radiography are also collaborating on the development of a detector that will allow fluoroscopic imaging, as well as a detector for digital mammography.

The fluoroscopic system is probably a year or more away from commercialization, Culley said. A mammography product would not have the same technical challenges as those presented by dynamic imaging, but developers would have to consider regulatory issues, particularly the need to conduct clinical testing.

“Our strategy is to let some other companies get clearances from the FDA on their digital mammography products so we have a better idea of what the government is looking for,” he said. “After that we should be able to move pretty fast.”

Mammography has a high priority, Culley said, because of Hologic’s commitment to women’s health through its bone densitometry products. Much of the development work for a mammography device has already been done. LG-LCD has made TFT arrays for a prototype unit, which has generated images of breast phantoms.

Another kink in the supply chain has also been straightened out. The alliance with Fischer Imaging of Denver, CO, was intended to provide major components for the DR 1000. These components, namely the arm, mount, and generator for the general radiography product, were to have been based on an existing product from Fischer. That product, however, needed some tweaking. Working together, engineers from Fischer and DRC redesigned virtually the entire general radiography system, including the generator, locks, and the bucky containing the flat-panel detector.

“By the time we were done, we had created a whole new product from the ground up,” said Alex Czernik, product manager of iiRAD systems.

On Sept. 9, Fischer installed the first commercial unit in the DRC facility, Culley said. The next step will be to install a working system at a nearby hospital in Glasgow, DE. That system is scheduled for installation in October.

The company also has plans to expand the system beyond its initial general radiography application. Modifications, for example, in the arm holding the x-ray tube, have been made to increase the product’s utility in an emergency setting. These modifications will be shown at the upcoming RSNA meeting in the form of a digital product designed specifically for the emergency room.

DRC has come a long way in a short time. Just a few months ago, the company was searching for a home, having been excluded from the deal that saw the rest of Sterling Diagnostic Imaging acquired by Agfa (SCAN 1/20/99). The future now appears much brighter, not only in terms of end products but also for opportunities in the retrofit sector. When DRC unveiled its iiRAD products commercially at the 1997 RSNA meeting, executives believed that retrofitting installed systems with digital flat panels was too risky. They worried that these systems might not be compatible with the digital detector, leading to an adverse impact on image quality. The company has decided, however, to go forward with offering retrofits to the general installed base.

“We believe this (retrofit) product is going to be dynamite, because the price is significantly lower and an awful lot of installations have equipment that is no more than three to five years old,” Culley said. “We’ve got a neat bucky for modifying the table (to make the room digital) and at RSNA we’ll be showing a new way of doing it.”

The process involves keeping the x-ray tube, generator, and generator console already on the installed system. The table is replaced, Culley said, to optimize compatibility with the bucky holding the digital flat-panel detector, and an operator console is added. Total cost will be $225,000, which is at least $100,000 less than the price of a new digital system.

The retrofit process evolved from the company’s military contract to retrofit x-ray equipment at Brooke Army Medical Center. The contract called for the retrofit of a single room, but Col. Anna Chacko, MD, chair of the radiology department at the medical center, plans to upgrade her 13 other radiography rooms to digital, as the budget permits. Dr. Chacko predicts the conversion will be done by the end of 2000.

The retrofit program should make bean counters at DRC and parent Hologic happy as well. Although the cost to the customer of a retrofit is at least a third less than buying a new digital system, the profit margin for DRC on the two is the same, according to Culley.

Regardless of whether the digital plate is integrated into a brand new or an existing system, DRC has learned that correctly training operators in its use is critical.

“People in that particular part of the radiology department have never dealt with computers,” he said. “In going to digital, they are going from a film screen to a high-technology environment. We have ended up spending more time training them than we really anticipated we’d have to do.”