Medison goes digital with release of three new ultrasound scanners

Korean ultrasound vendor Medison wants to run with the big dogs of the U.S. ultrasound market, but has been hobbled by its reputation as a provider of low-end analog-based scanners. The company may yet achieve its aspirations, however, thanks to a trio

Korean ultrasound vendor Medison wants to run with the big dogs of the U.S. ultrasound market, but has been hobbled by its reputation as a provider of low-end analog-based scanners. The company may yet achieve its aspirations, however, thanks to a trio of new product introductions that use digital technology to deliver high image quality at a reasonable price.

Medison has rapidly grown since last year, when it acquired Austrian 3-D ultrasound developer Kretztechnik (SCAN 5/22/96). In early 1997, Medison reshuffled its executive staff at its Medison America subsidiary in Pleasanton, CA, and went on a hiring binge, expanding its head count from nine employees at the beginning of the year to 60 at present.

Key to Medison's new strategy is the 3-D scanner acquired in the Kretz purchase. Medison sees the product as a point of differentiation between itself and the rest of the ultrasound market, which is still primarily focused on 2-D imaging.

The Kretz product was known as Combison 530, and despite its 3-D capability, the system still needed some work, particularly in the areas of 3-D reconstruction speed and image quality, which did not measure up to that of high-end ultrasound scanners, according to Peter Klein, president and CEO of Medison America. Kretz engineers developed a new all-digital 128-channel beamformer that uses application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) provided by Medison, and added DICOM conformance. Medison has renamed the new system Voluson 530D, and the scanner received 510(k) clearance in February.

Voluson 530D now has the image quality of a high-end ultrasound scanner, with the added bonus of its 3-D imaging capability, which is integrated into the scanner and does not require a separate workstation. In fact, that is how Medison is positioning the system: as a high-quality scanner that can also do 3-D, rather than as a dedicated 3-D offering.

Klein sees a parallel between 3-D imaging and color Doppler: Few ultrasound users would want to buy a color Doppler scanner without gray-scale imaging, but if offered color on a standard scanner, many would use it often.

Medison believes that Voluson 530D has advantages over dedicated 3-D ultrasound workstations because the system doesn't require purchasers to buy a special piece of hardware. The price of Voluson 530D is comparable to that of a high-end scanner, meaning that clinicians don't have to shell out precious capital equipment dollars other than what they would already spend for a scanner, according to Klein.

"What we are doing from a strategic perspective is saying that if you buy an ultrasound machine today, we can give you all you need-2-D, color Doppler, high image quality, digital beamforming, and all the probes-but we also give you the capability of 3-D acquisition and rendering in real-time at no extra cost," Klein said.

In addition to the digital beamformer, Medison installed new acceleration packages for Voluson 530D, and the scanner is now able to render 3-D images in real-time, or about one-tenth of a second. Another addition is 3-D View CyberCenter, a new software package that enables clinicians to conduct 3-D image processing off-line on a separate computer. Sonographers can thus continue scanning with the system while others process and manipulate 3-D images. The software runs on standard PC hardware, requiring at least a 133-MHz Pentium processor, and can be set up in a networked environment. Medison plans to begin shipping 3-D View CyberCenter later this year.

Medison believes it is making progress in proving the clinical value of 3-D technology. Ob/gyn studies have been natural areas of application for 3-D, as well as abdominal imaging, such as hepatobiliary exams and endorectal studies of the prostate, according to Christopher Bohl, business unit director of ob/gyn and perinatology. But the company believes that the value of 3-D goes beyond 3-D rendering: Clinicians are discovering the utility of multiplanar reconstruction, that is, being able to acquire image slices from any plane desired.

"There is a big misperception in the marketplace that 3-D is 3-D rendering. That is only one small element of the total package," Klein said. "More important is the ability to take the object and be able to slice and dice it any way you want."

Voluson 530D isn't the only new Medison scanner, however. The company has also announced the introduction of two new systems, SonoAce 6000 and SonoAce 8800, both of which are based on digital beamformer architecture. SonoAce 6000 is a lower mid-range system targeted at ob/gyn and surgical applications that sells for just under $40,000, a price point that Medison believes is unique for a product with a digital beamformer and ASIC integration. The system is capable of digital image storage, although it is not DICOM-compatible. SonoAce 8800, meanwhile, is a color Doppler scanner with a 64-channel digital beamformer that will sell for about $80,000. Sales of SonoAce 6000 began two months ago, while U.S. sales of SonoAce 8800 are awaiting Medison's completion of a 510(k) application for the scanner.

Medison will show all three systems at this year's Radiological Society of North America meeting, as well as its work-in-progress Magnum 1-tesla MRI scanner (SCAN 1/22/97). The appearance will cap a year in which the Medison America subsidiary expects to triple its revenues from the year before. The firm's momentum should grow as Medison sheds its image as a low-end vendor, according to Klein.

"All the people that have seen (Voluson 530D) will recognize this in a heartbeat," Klein said. "What we have to work on is getting the company's new message out."