High-performance dry printers seek entry into premium imager market

New thermal technology produces quality imagesFalling prices, miniaturized electronics, and the adoption of "reference media" have made printers as ubiquitous in radiology operations as they are in business offices. Sony Medical

New thermal technology produces quality images

Falling prices, miniaturized electronics, and the adoption of "reference media" have made printers as ubiquitous in radiology operations as they are in business offices. Sony Medical and Codonics, two companies specializing in this market segment, demonstrated products at the RSNA meeting that have helped create this new environment and may shape it further in the near future.

Codonics has had extraordinary success, having installed 20,000 medical imagers worldwide. Its latest introduction, the Horizon family of products, was released in April 2002 and comprises three dry imagers:

- top-of-the-line Horizon Ci gray-scale and color imager, capable of generating 14 x 17-, 11 x 14-, and 8 x 10-inch films and paper;

- gray-scale Horizon GS, built to handle 14 x 17- and 8 x 10-inch films and paper; and

- color and gray-scale Horizon SF, which runs only 8 x 10-inch media.

The imagers cost $37,000 for the high-end Ci, $31,000 for the midrange GS, and $19,000 for the low-tier SF.

About 80 of this family of systems were featured in OEM booths at the RSNA meeting, a natural choice for their location, as Codonics depends primarily on OEMs for the sale of these products. Relationships with the vendors have grown over the past two decades since Codonics first launched small-format thermal printers for "boutique" markets, primarily ultrasound and nuclear medicine.

According to Codonics, the Horizon direct thermal imagers provide laser-quality images, each printing as many as 100 images per hour, compared with 70 when the family was commercially released last year. The new benchmark in speed was achieved through a hardware/software upgrade that spools the image data more effectively.

The thermal print head employs U-shaped elements that reduce cross-talk between pixels, providing better definition and eliminating artifacts such as horizontal banding. Special inks increase the density of colors on the paper and film.

"They fill horizontal and vertical gaps, so the light comes through in very saturated and dark colors," said Michael Kolberg, Codonics general manager.

The Horizon family prints on four types of media: gray-scale paper, color paper, color film, and gray-scale (blue and clear) film. Multiple trays built into the Ci and GS provide whatever medium is needed for specific jobs. The demand for color printing has increased in response to the growing adoption of functional imaging, particularly PET/CT.

Like Codonics, Sony Medical has been making printers, primarily for ultrasound, for more than a decade. The company entered the big leagues a year ago, releasing a premium dry imager called Film Station, which promises speed, image quality, and an extraordinarily small footprint. It relies on a thermal print head that instills 4096 shades of gray on blue thermal film. DICOM connectivity makes the product compatible with any digital modality or PACS. Because of its compact footprint of 25 x 10 x 27 inches, FilmStation fits into cramped quarters, such as the edge of a desk or under it. One unit can print 70 sheets of 14 x 17-inch film per hour. Alternatively, two FilmStations can be linked to generate as many as 130 films per hour.

"It's a very versatile unit," said George Santanello, director of marketing for Sony Medical Systems. "Because of its size and affordability, it can go into an imaging center, a doctor's office, or mobile vans."

The company has positioned this one- or two-unit product, priced around $35,000 per imager, as a cost-effective solution to larger and slower dry film imagers. Sony currently sells FilmStation through distributors but plans to eventually widen its scale and sell the product through major OEMs.

The importance of FilmStation to Sony is hard to overestimate. The company devoted 85% of its 2003 RSNA booth to the product, which began shipping last July.

"FilmStation is Sony's first true radiology printer," Santanello said. "For more than 10 years, Sony has built thermal and dye sub printers, and using that experience and the relationships we have built up with the radiology companies, we came up with FilmStation."

Sony plans to build out the product line by the end of this year with a "mini-FilmStation." The low-cost thermal printer, which will probably be priced under $10,000, will generate nondiagnostic 8 x 10-inch copies for referring physicians.