GE Medical fires big R&D guns in radiology ultrasound foray

December 15, 1993

The fight in radiology ultrasound was already bloody when GE MedicalSystems threw a sucker punch at competitors during the RadiologicalSociety of North America conference this month. GE unveiled atechnically sophisticated works-in-progress scanner that

The fight in radiology ultrasound was already bloody when GE MedicalSystems threw a sucker punch at competitors during the RadiologicalSociety of North America conference this month. GE unveiled atechnically sophisticated works-in-progress scanner that couldprovide the vendor with a significant market position in high-endradiology ultrasound, one of the few medical imaging segmentswhere it is not currently a player.

The leading U.S. medical imaging vendor spent more than threeyears and $100 million developing its Logiq 700 ultrasound system,which is under application at the U.S. Food and Drug Administrationfor 510(k) marketing clearance.

GE's timing could have been better. U.S. ultrasound sales havesagged about 10% this year, according to John M. Trani, GE seniorvice president and group executive for medical systems. But thevendor expects to build share in the U.S. while growing the globalbusiness in the still vibrant ultrasound markets overseas.

Most importantly for GE, however, ultrasound ranks second onlyto x-ray in terms of absolute worldwide market size. No leadingmedical imaging vendor worth its salt can afford not to participatefully in ultrasound.

"You have to be in all segments of the business in orderto play globally. We were under-represented in ultrasound,"Trani said.

Corporate GE remains upbeat about business prospects in medical,according to CEO Jack Welch.

"We (GE Medical Systems) are growing at 50% a year inAsia," Welch told SCAN. "Our Asian business will goto $1 billion this year. Our Latin American business is growingat double digits. The only place we are having real problems ishere (in the U.S.)."

Propelled by international markets, GE Medical Systems shouldhave double- digit income growth next year, Welch said. U.S. medicalsales will continue to sag in 1994, but should turn up again in1995 or shortly thereafter.

Eventually, sales of ultrasound--as a relatively low-cost yetversatile medical imaging modality--should pick up again in areformed U.S. health-care system.

"Ultrasound will grow again (in the U.S.)," he said."There has been a domestic dislocation caused by uncertaintyover what the (health-care) plan is going to be. That uncertaintyis going to be over in 24 months."

Even in a depressed U.S. radiology ultrasound market, however,there is nowhere to go but up for GE.

"We have a lot of room to grow in this market; it is madefor us," Welch said. "We can deliver the speed and technologyof a small company together with the staying power of GE. If youwere a hospital (purchaser), where would you put your money?"

The question for GE is whether it can indeed provide the technologicalfocus and agility of such dedicated ultrasound suppliers as Acuson,ATL and Diasonics. Other large multimodality imaging vendors,such as Philips and Siemens, are trying to build a major positionin ultrasound. None except Toshiba has accomplished this yet.

Siemens, with its acquisition of Quantum Medical Systems, ismaking strides in ultrasound, although the vendor has not yetintroduced a successor to the Quantum 2000.

GE has a history--in MRI, for instance--of entering medicaltechnologies somewhat late, but then quickly garnering a largemarket share. It has been most successful, however, when holdinga strong technological hand, Trani said.

"When we deal from strength, we do fairly well,"he told SCAN. "When we deal from weakness, whether it's acquiringnew technology or otherwise, we don't do very well. The fact thatwe started from scratch (in developing the new ultrasound technology)has helped us."

GE also succeeded in closely coordinating corporate R&Dresources with those of Medical Systems headquarters in Milwaukeeand other GE divisions with related technology, such as aerospace,Trani said.

"We formed a mixed team with people from outside medical,"he said.

GE received a boost in its ultrasound effort with the rehiringtwo years ago of Lonnie Edelheit, who had left GE in 1985 to leadQuantum as president and CEO (SCAN 6/19/91).

Subsequent to his return to GE's R&D headquarters in Schenectady,NY, Edelheit replaced former GE Medical Systems chief Walter L.Robb to head up the corporate R&D group as senior vice president.While Edelheit was initially restricted in his ultrasound activitiesby a non-compete agreement with Siemens, that agreement has sinceexpired.

Logiq 700 is designed for cost-effective performance and long-termprotection against obsolescence, Edelheit said. An all-digitalbeamformer featuring parallel processors is the key to the system'sperformance.

"The computer lets us take out a lot of artifacts thatare seen with other machines," he said "This gives usmore sensitivity. We think this may change the way diagnosis isdone for abdominal and vascular exams."

Edelheit contrasts Logiq 700's technology against that of theindustry leaders, describing the premium Acuson product as having128 "very inflexible analog elements that produce very goodimages" and ATL's high-end scanner as having 64 elementsthat are "very flexible so they can act like 128 elements."

Both competitors claim their products can do 128-element imaging.Both have similar functionality, while GE has taken a differenttack, Edelheit claimed.

"We have 128 independent channels. They're all digital.They're extremely flexible. So we can do things with the systemthat people haven't done before," he said.

The digital beamformer runs what GE engineers call virtualconvex probes. These are linear-array transducers that can functionin both linear and convex format.

Logiq 700 has only five probes, but they accommodate more than90% of the examinations performed in radiology departments. Followingcommercial launch of the system, the company plans to introducea new probe every three months for the next several years.

The Logiq 700 platform, which has been designed to allow upgradingfrom 128 to 256 or even 512 channels, will support new technologiesfor at least the next decade, Edelheit said.

Among these future technologies is real-time multidimensionalimaging, which holds the promise of extending the clinical reachof this modality well beyond its traditional applications. Thisis accomplished by adding a second array of elements in the transducerin the z axis to complement the conventional linear array thatruns along the x axis.

Experimental arrays with up to five rows, each having 128 channels,are under investigation in Schenectady, according to Jeff Peiffer,GE ultrasound marketing manager.

"We're adding a third dimension to ultrasound imaging,"Edelheit said.

The jump to multidimensional imaging, however, will requirethat the system be outfitted with at least 256 channels to allowreal-time processing of color and gray-scale images at frame ratesrequired for high-quality imaging. GE engineers have been experimentingwith Logiq 700 in this type of configuration for about nine monthsand have generated such images as a three-dimensional pictureof a liver hemangioma.

GE staff have also produced two-dimensional images showingexcellent visualization and differentiation of very small structures,according to John Kese, GE general manager of global ultrasound.

Frame rates have reached 30 per second with no adverse impacton color or gray-scale image quality, he said. Parallel processingprovides the power to deliver extremely fast color-flow framerates. A patented color-flow technology, called adaptive colorenhancement, filters out artifacts resulting from cardiac andrespiratory motion as well as rapid movement of the operator'shand. The quality of the signal is conveyed to the operator throughthe use of flicker-free, progressive monitors like those provenin CT and MR.

Because the system uses a digital architecture, the companyplans to use software upgrades to reprogram and reconfigure Logiq700 for future applications, thereby avoiding expensive hardwaremodifications. Being digital, the system can also connect to imagemanagement systems using the DICOM standard and will be servicedby GE's remote InSite maintenance system.

Ergonomic features include automatic probe switching amongfour active transducer ports. Transducers automatically activatewhen they are picked up. Transducer cables are protected fromdamage by a cable management system that keeps them from beingrun over or tangled during transport or scanning. Intuitive operatorinterfaces, designed on the basis of time-motion studies, makeit easy to learn and easy to use, Kese said.

"The keyboard also has the unique attribute of being able(to adjust to the height) of the operator," Kese said. "It'sbasically bringing the tilt wheel to ultrasound, as well as awhole new dashboard. Both of these features obviously reduce scanningfatigue, which is a hit in productivity."

Logiq 700 might soon be joined by one or more products bearingthe Logiq name. Industry sources report that a mid-tier Logiq500 system is being readied for marketing in Europe.

GE officials at the RSNA meeting refused comment on whethera mid-tier Logiq system will be brought to the U.S. They indicated,however, that Logiq 700 will be the first in a new line of powerful,upgradable ultrasound systems and that the company will launchseveral new ultrasound products targeted primarily at radiologyand cardiology applications.