December 2012

Tekscan: Systems for pressure measurement and beyond

By Barbara Boughton

Tekscan, founded in 1987, began as a company that marketed tactile pressure sensors to dentists;. It has since expanded to become a leader in systems that measure pressure distribution for a range of clients, including hospitals and research centers that work with patients diagnosed with health conditions that affect the feet and lower extremities.

The first Tekscan system, called the T-scan, was used by dentists to visualize dynamic occlusal forces in their patients’ mouths, enabling more accurate diagnosis and treatment of dental conditions. Medical biomechanics products now make up about 25% of the company’s sales, which total $20 million yearly, according to Steve Jacobs, company president. Headquartered in Boston, the company has more than 100 employees.

“We manufacture complete systems for virtually any tactile sensile need, and there are new applications for our technology every day,” Jacobs said.

Tekscan has its own internal team for creating electrical and mechanical software for tactile sensors as well as sensor engineers who design the actual products. Used worldwide for applications that range from development of new automobiles to care of the diabetic foot, the company currently holds 14 patents for its products, according to Jacobs.

Clinicians who treat and study the diabetic foot and other foot conditions are a major part of Tekscan’s client base. Their F-scan system can be used for in-shoe analysis and to provide information on bipedal plantar pressure and forces during stance and gait, Jacobs said. Some F-scan products can be used to measure and analyze gait and plantar pressures outside the clinic—for instance, during sports play, he noted.

Tekscan’s pressure sensing foot mats, such as the MatScan, provide plantar pressure and force information during  stance or while standing barefoot or with footwear, Jacobs said.

The HR mat is a high-resolution mat produced by Tekscan that is often used by clinicians or researchers who work with small children, people with physical disabilities, or those with highly deformed feet. “In these cases, you need higher resolution to visualize and analyze stance and gait,” Jacobs said.

Another Tekscan product, an extended floor mat called the Walkway system, can also provide pressure measurements and gait analysis during several steps.

Tekscan’s most unique sensor is used in their seating system, the CONFORMat. “It’s a fully conforming, non-hammocking pressure-sensing mat that contains over 2,000 individual sensing elements, each of which can move independently in three directions. The advantage of the CONFORMat is that it moves and matches the contours of the patient and cushion,”Jacobs said.

By matching the contours rather than stretching across them, the sensor does not artificially support the body, causing hammocking. Nor does it change the cushion’s true reaction to body pressures, according to Jacobs. Thus, measurements are more accurate.

The CONFORMat is often used by researchers who need exact measurements for seating studies involving subjects (or patients) with limited mobility, Jacobs said.

Tekscan’s products now include “triggering options” that enable customers to synchronize data collection wirelessly with other data collection devices, such as motion capture systems in a biome­chanics laboratory. “The idea is that in a gait lab you can see the data from all these systems at the same time,” Jacobs said.

How do Tekscan’s products benefit clinicians and researchers? The pressure mapping medical systems enable them to actually see inside footwear and prosthetic sockets and under the plantar surface of the foot to more accurately assess and evaluate foot function and gait and treat foot and postural disorders, according to Jacobs. “Clinicians and researchers can then provide the most appropriate treatment or research application to investigate, develop, and prescribe comfort insoles and orthotics and prosthetics,” Jacobs said. The need for physical therapy, rehabilitation, and surgery can also be assessed with Tekscan’s force and pressure measurement systems, Jacobs said.

Tekscan supports colleges and institutions that perform scientific research or train and educate dentists and podiatrists with 10% discounts on its products, according to Jacobs.

The company has also provided pressure mats to the Special Olympics, where these products can help trainers evaluate athletes and advise them on their footwear. “It also helps the coaches or trainers recommend techniques to help the athletes improve their running, jumping, and overall movement,” Jacobs said.

Tekscan has an in-house design, manufacturing, and software development staff in Boston and also provides support and training in the use of its products. The company has an international reach, and sales outside the US now total 50% of the company’s revenues, Jacobs said.

Right now Tekscan is working on new versions of software for the dental T-scan (now in its fourth generation) and F-scan in-shoe analysis system. “We’re always coming up with new sensor designs and improved technology,” Jacobs said.

Barbara Boughton is a freelance health and medical writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Article sponsored by Tekscan.


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