Andy Cook reflects on the changing digital imaging landscape
A passion for electronics
I qualified as an electronics engineer about 30 years ago. At that time, I had the opportunity to join Crosfield Electronics, a company who in the early 70s developed the world’s first commercial colour scanner – used to scan and digitise photos used in newspapers, magazines, books and other printed material.
It was an exciting time for the industry, with lots of investment going on in all sorts of new technology and software – all related to digital colour and image manipulation. It was also an exciting time for me to join one of the most successful colour scanner manufacturers in the world, with lots of new product developments and launches going on.
In 1996 the organisation went through a major change when FUJIFILM acquired the assets and people from Crosfield Electronics and established FUJIFILM Electronic Imaging Ltd (FFEI). FUJIFILM made a hug investment into the companies infrastructure and capabilities for product development and quality standards. It was a privilege to accept the role of Managing Director in late 2000 to lead the organisation with various Japanese senior managers.
In 2006 I was privileged to lead a management buyout. We renamed the company FFEI and were given the freedom to invest much more broadly in the world of digital pathology. During my career I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with some of the leading digital colour experts and teams as we developed more and more advanced scanning technologies. Indeed, most of my career has been spent with teams pushing the boundaries of digital colour and its application.
It was almost 20 years ago that a client started using one of our high-end photographic scanners to digitize human tissue. It was all very crude in those days, but it opened our eyes to the future possibilities for digital pathology. Our first real digital pathology scanning device was launched in 2004 and although quite basic relative to today’s technology it provided a very good base to develop a brightfield whole slide scanner.
We launched in 2009 and it became a major success for us – winning a Queen’s Award for Innovation in 2013. As we’ve learned more about the needs of our pathology clients and the whole workflow challenges it became apparent that for digital imaging to really become mainstream and a game changer in pathology there were several technical challenges needed to be overcome. Firstly the speed image quality ratio needed to dramatically improve to match the overall throughput requirements of a normal lab. Secondly the colour fidelity and accuracy of each image needed to better reflect the truth of the original slide.
INVESTMENT IN DIGITAL PATHOLOGY
Having gained an understanding of the technical challenges blocking the wider adoption of Digital Pathology devices, FFEI embarked on a couple of major government-funded research programs over the coming 2 years. One of those research programs helped us develop very high-quality scanning at high speed. That technology now forms part of the imaging engine within the Ventana DP-200 slide scanner. In fact, that technology recently won us another Queens Award for Innovation, which we celebrated just a few weeks ago.
The second research program resulted in the product called Sierra, which is our colour calibration technology. Specifically, the research enabled us to identify materials that could be used in a calibration slide [pictured below]. The materials represent or have characteristics of human tissue when scanned under a digital device.
OPPORTUNITY IN LIFE SCIENCE GROWING
In recent years the opportunities for Digital Pathology have evolved a lot with the growth in Artificial Intelligence technology (AI). AI is allowing the automated analysis of digital images in vast quantities and incredibly speeds which is opening up new applications and future possibilities. With more sophisticated workflows and cloud based storage means that the management of image data can be shared across distributed networks and users.
At a time when the recent pandemic has forced the need for home working, Pathologist have been able to reap the benefits of viewing digital images remotely.
After many years of experience in this field we are acutely aware of the need to ensure image quality integrity especially when digital images are to be used to determine critical decisions potentially related to some ones health. It was this understanding which led us to invest heavily in the development of device calibration technology which we productised under the brand name ‘Sierra’
Since the MBO in 2006, FFEI has come a long way and through the endeavours of our employees have achieved many industry and technical break throughs. Looking to the future it was important to provide the business with an environment which not only provided long term security but also one which would allow increased resources and the opportunity to grow.
Having worked with Xaar plc for over 15 years and adopted their industrial inkjet head technology in many of our printing solutions Xaar become the obvious fit. Xaar has a wonderful heritage of developing highly advanced technology and leading the markets they occupy. FFEI have the expertise for developing full systems and integrating Xaar inkjet head technology into advanced systems. The synergy was clear and the opportunities endless and so on 12th July 2021 we announced the acquisition for FFEI by Xaar plc.
While much of our future focus will inevitably be on digital printing solutions the new environment opens the door to all sorts of new opportunities to grow and develop our digital pathology solutions and technology. Just a few weeks in and it already seems liked we have opened a very exciting chapter in the companies business development and I can’t wait to see how the company flourishes in the years ahead.
Eyes to the future
The future does looks very exciting for our team as we start to explore fundamentally new ways to digitise tissue and human cells for analysis so that we can create new types of image data for sophisticated AI algorithms. It feels like this new chapter in our business is going to accelerate the advances we are making in the field of Life Sciences.