De Beers is a company associated with the diamond mining rather than the electronics industry, but a number of unique electronic products have been developed by DebTech aimed at the better recovery of diamonds from ore and preventing staff theft of diamonds.
In terms of the latter, one of the problems faced was that miners could exit the workings having concealed stolen gems anywhere on their body or clothes. They could have been inserted into shoes, could have been swallowed or could have been inserted in any body orifice such as the mouth or ear. An obvious solution to the problem was a full body X-ray, but occupational health regulations lay down a strict accumulated radiation dose that any worker can be subjected to over a one year period. Conventional X-ray technology would have significantly exceeded this dose and 100% scanning of exiting miners would have been impossible.
The work on what has now become a product called Scannex, began in the 1990s under Herman Potgieter, the original CEO of Lodox Systems. Scannex, which made use of unique linear slot scanning technology with a proprietary detector, together with sophisticated digital imaging processing was a tremendous success and has subsequently been deployed and is in operation at many of the De Beers diamond mines. The person standing inside the X-ray cubicle can be scanned in some 12 seconds after which they are transferred either to the outside or a booth where they stay while security personnel can carefully scrutinise the X-ray. The amount of radiation absorbed by the body during the scan is so low that an individual may be scanned over 200 times per year and still be within internationally-accepted standards of radiation exposure. While currently being used to scan miners, Scannex has enormous potential in a variety of fields, such as in airport security, customs (for drugs), prisons and other businesses that handle high-value products.
The first application identified however, was in the medical field and the first Statscan system was developed in 1998, being installed at Groote Schuur hospital for an extensive evaluation period. The development of Statscan was partially funded by the dti under its SPII programme. Statscan differs from Scannex in that the patient lies flat and the machine moves so as to provide a full body X-ray within five minutes that will on a single image show all the injuries within the body of a trauma victim. Another major advantage over conventional X-ray technology is that no film is used, the image being available immediately at a viewing station, while the radiographs can be transmitted over any computer network. The objective of Statscan was to enable medical personnel to stabilise trauma patients within the so-called 'golden hour' and to provide surgeons with an overall clear picture of possible multiple injuries so that the critical problems could be tackled first.
The commercialisation of Statscan required significant capital investment and when Lodox Systems was launched in 2002, the partners were the IDC, Netcare and De Beers itself, the latter having its small share on a decreasing equity basis which has now been eliminated. As the cost of the system is some R3 million, the local market for the product is small and Lodox Systems North America was immediately formed as the US was seen as the most likely market to embrace the technology in a major way. In keeping with the product being a South African invention Lodox teamed up with local company Adroit Technologies who provided its advanced Version 5.0 software as the user interface.
Following FDA approval, the first Statscan system was installed in a US Trauma Centre, appropriately named after the doctor that coined the term 'golden hour', namely R. Adams Cowley. Several installations have followed and further systems are on order with other local systems being installed in the Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg and UCT's Medical School, while Groote Schuur is set to receive the latest production model. The US, as a country, is taking steps to ensure that it will be prepared for any new large scale emergencies (following 11 September) and it is edifying that Statscan has been installed in the ER1 (all risks ready) prototype emergency centre in the Washington Hospital Centre. Although designed initially for trauma units, Statscan with its low and controllable X-ray dose is specifically applicable for paediatric applications, pregnant mothers, and oversize (bariatric) patients, as well as general radiography.
The low X-ray dose further allows life support personnel full access to the patient during the scan and there is no need for the traditional radiation shielding. Full body X-ray images can now be obtained in 13 seconds or less and a comprehensive X-ray examination by professionals can take as little as 3 minutes (vs one hour using conventional techniques). Note that Statscan can also be used to zoom in on specific smaller areas for more detailed examination. As Statscan is supplied as a self-contained unit with its C-arm scanner (that moves over and around the patient) and a special gurney, its small footprint and easy-to-install floor mounting allows it to be shipped in a container to be rushed to disaster areas (earthquakes, battle zones or terrorist attacks etc) anywhere in the world.
During October 2004, Lodox, as a result of Statscan, was awarded the prestigious Frost & Sullivan Award for Excellence in Medical Imaging Technology. In February of the same year Lodox also received Frost & Sullivan's Product Innovation Award where Statscan was cited as 'one of the most versatile DR (digital radiography) systems in the market'. The company was also awarded the 2003 Popular Science 'Best of What's New' Grand Award.
Development of the Statscan system continues and during October 2004 the Rad-MP upgrade became available. When equipped with the new upgrade the Statscan allows X-ray technologists to easily position seated or standing patients for imaging of upper-body extremities, erect chests/abdomens, and weight bearing spine or joint procedures. The upgrade can be acquired as an option to the standard configuration, or added to Statscan systems already in use.
The accolades that the system has received to date should result in many more installations in North America together with the rest of the developed world, and at R3 million a time should contribute significantly to South Africa's high-tech exports. Credit must be given to DebTech and De Beers for their innovation and for having the foresight in taking the technology another major step forward from its immediate requirement. In terms of medical breakthroughs of South African origin, it more than compares to the pioneering work carried out by Professor Allan Cormack of UCT which led to the development of the world's first CT scanner. Development costs associated with Statscan are quoted at some R90m, but Lodox expects sales to rise to more than 120 units per year.