The science of medical engineering merges various engineering disciplines with several fields of medicine, including diagnostics, therapy, and rehabilitation. Technical knowledge is applied to facilitate practical activities within these fields and to optimise the treatment methods used. It is against this background that medical engineers develop apparatus, products and technical processes. In addition, research and development activities lead to the formulation of principles, rules and findings on the basis of technologies such as microsystems or nanotechnology. Optical, information and communication technologies also exercise a steadily growing influence on medical engineering. On top of this, the use of robotics is becoming increasingly relevant in surgical activities as well as in the context of therapy and patient care.

The significance of medical engineering is particularly clear when viewed in the context of questions facing society as a whole, such as how to cope with demographic change. It both promotes and challenges the development of wide ranging key technologies, such as additive manufacturing. A further aim of medical engineering is to ease the workload placed on specialist medical personnel and to effect success-oriented improvements. The medical engineering sector is at the same time both a highly regulated and a hugely progressive industry. The development of medical equipment is influenced by stringent safety requirements directives, and their operation and maintenance also requires profound knowledge on the part of their specialist users. 

Harmonic Drive® gears in medical robots

Both robotics and mechatronics have established themselves as integral sub-fields in a wide range of medical application areas. So-called medical robots have become an essential element of technology in many hospitals, clinics and rehabilitation centres. The activities they perform are frequently extremely complex, and they assist human specialists by performing tasks that either require extreme effort or simply cannot be done by surgeons, physicians or nurses over an extended period. Medical robots rely on their components having a very high level of functionality and displaying essential attributes such as compact construction, smooth running, and the complete absence of play. As high-quality, precisely functioning technical medical equipment is required if patients are to benefit, for example, from effective rehabilitation training, Harmonic Drive® gears in the HFUC, HFUS, CSD and CSG series have been designed to guarantee these characteristics. To enable them to fulfil a further decisive criterion - the ability to be moved passively - articulated robot joints are employed in many of the units in this series. They therefore provide benefits over and above their active operation, while as medical engineering products, they make an essential contribution to the success of patient therapy.

3D printing and digitalisation in medical engineering

The field of medical engineering is influenced by a wide range of different factors. After doctors and surgeons who conduct research into new healing methods, and politicians who set out the legal framework, engineers are also responsible for much of the momentum shaping the medical technology industry. By employing innovative technologies, they play a leading role in shaping the progress made in the disciplines of diagnostics, therapy and all other sub-disciplines of medical engineering. The most promising and forward-looking trend technologies include miniaturisation, automation, personalisation, and, above all, additive manufacturing, such as 3D printing, and digitalisation.

Both 3D printing and other additive manufacturing techniques have a wide range of manifestations in the field of medicine. As well as enabling the fast and cost-effective production of implants, the layering procedure also makes it possible to create realistic models that can be used as preliminary practice objects and supply helpful data on impending operations. Other research that is no less revolutionary is currently being conducted in another sub-field of additive manufacturing within the discipline of medical engineering - the creation of artificial organs and human stem cells by 3D printing.

Additive manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing are of such great interest in the field of medical engineering thanks to their ability to produce individually tailored implants and prostheses. Until now, only standardised sizes and shapes were available, which necessitated retrospective adjustment. But now, thanks to the layering process, exactly the opposite is possible. 3D datasets are generated either by modelling or by employing special techniques to create and evaluate 3D X-ray images. As a result, prostheses can now be tailored to the patient’s specific needs, resulting in more effective healing and an enhanced quality of life for the patient.

The process of digitalisation is another field of innovation, and it is already bringing about fundamental changes in the health service, not least due to its use of smartphone apps and electronic watches, or smart watches. These are able to measure and record the user’s pulse and other variables, demonstrating how the technology can now be found in the private sphere. All this data is processed and undergoes intelligent interlinking on the basis of digital IT systems. This makes it possible to create an accurate representation of a person’s health. Diagnostics is not the only discipline to benefit from this development, as individually tailored measures can also be created to benefit therapy and rehabilitation.

Fields of medical engineering

Medical engineering and equipment can be found in a wide range of application and task areas. Imaging techniques used in diagnostics, such as magnetic resonance tomography (MRT), and X-ray processes such as computer tomography (CT) and mammography all make use of medical-technical equipment, as does classic ultrasound technology. Medical products in this field include pacemakers, dialysis machines and infusion pumps, as well as vision aids and a variety of implants and prostheses. These products are often classified as hospital technology, which comprises medical devices used in hospitals. Other areas of application in medical engineering include tissue engineering, the generation of artificial organs, and medical informatics. The latter consists of the collection, presentation, management, storage and application of data in a medical context. One area in which particularly advanced examples of medical engineering can be found is the operating theatre. For example, assistance systems enable the automated control of breathing, while surgical robots support their human colleagues with maximum precision and at a constant rate of performance.

Overview of fields in medical engineering:

  • Hospital technology
  • Imaging diagnostics
  • Tissue engineering
  • Medical equipment
  • Medical informatics
  • Rehabilitation and therapy
  • Surgical technology

Research and development in medical engineering:

Central factors of medical engineering at an economic level include the strong link between products and services as well as the international process of standardisation. Significant framework conditions laid down by the state aim to protect not only patients and cost bearers but also manufacturers and specialist personnel. Another essential feature of the industry is the disproportionately high level of research that is conducted.

Companies and manufacturers in the medical technology industry as well as producers of technical components invest highly in research and development, with the average level for the sector at nearly 10% of turnover. These statistics are based on the demand for highly developed technical medical equipment - which is set to continue rising steadily in future - that make medical engineering such a significant and integral part of the health industry. In this way, medical engineering is making a decisive contribution to the so-called health value chain, while offering solutions and approaches that aim at alleviating general social problems.