Sponsored by AUE
By Jim Carr
In the past decade or so, I have had a few apprentice imaging engineers that wonder if they made the right career choice after a couple of months on the job. They wonder if their job is even going to exist in the near future. They observe how reliable the new scanners are and notice most manufacturers have been reducing the frequency of preventive maintenance calls specified in manuals. And, they start learning about the remote diagnostics and password lockout schemes that reduce the effectiveness of a non-OEM field tech. The vision that the OEMs have been striving toward for years, to capture all the aftermarket revenue and reduce or eliminate the need for field engineers, becomes clear to them.
The need to have a bachelor’s degree in electronic engineering to do field service of scanners has been eliminated already. The days of a field engineer using an oscilloscope and soldering iron are long gone. The Field Replaceable Units (FRUs) of today are boards and sometimes modules made up of several boards. Many companies, especially OEMs, are using remote monitoring that will “phone home” to the service center when a problem is detected. They can use the Internet to do diagnostic testing and perform some repairs such as applying software updates without having to dispatch a field service person. Many scanners are designed to automatically repair one of the most common problems we see these days, software corruption. There are some systems that now have diagnostics on steroids; artificial intelligence (AI) that can automatically switch on a replacement part or redundant circuit built into the scanner when the diagnostics detect a failure.
Ultrasound systems are becoming small enough to be shipped to a depot for repair, and a couple of companies have systems that are made to be modular and easily disassembled, so that the customer can do all the field service themselves. At least one OEM has an MRI scanner that has the entire image processing subsystem off-site, connected to the gantry and magnet through the World Wide Web, enabling one tech at the factory to maintain several customers’ units.
There is no doubt that our jobs have changed quite a bit over the years with improvements in the scanner designs. A field engineer could only handle 25 or 30 ultrasound systems in the late 1980s, and now most that I know are servicing 250 to 300 units. In the early days we needed a field engineer for every MRI scanner. (Those scanners were called NMR in the beginning, but “nuclear” in the name freaked out some customers.) At that time the imaging engineer needed to be able to use a spectrum analyzer and do calculus, even to do a PM! Now a Siemens MRI system has a built-in PM routine that is mostly automated, with animation showing which phantom to use and where to place it on the gantry. They can be PMed by a 12 year old!
However, despite all those great strides in reliability and serviceability, as new field engineers get more experience they begin to realize something most of us know. Our jobs are safe for a while. As an HTM manager told me years ago, “As long as there are nurses and careless scan techs, there will be broken devices that need to be fixed.” Almost all scanners in use today still require a skilled and experienced service technician to perform maintenance and replace parts. (And most of the technologists and doctors I know are not going to agree to be twisting screws and replacing electronic modules anytime soon, anyway!) There are also problems like poor AC mains, network issues and RFI/EMI noise that cannot be easily be diagnosed or fixed without specialized knowledge and experience.
But we should expect the scanners and the parts to keep getting more reliable and smaller (with the possible exceptions of RF amplifiers, X-ray tubes and gantries). One effect of the changes in designs and service strategies is that the skill level requirements for different field service jobs are becoming more stratified. Some field representative jobs with OEMs do not require an electronics background these days, in some cases companies will not even consider hiring someone with advanced electronics knowledge for the job. The big manufacturers tend to hire customer service reps who are generally intelligent people, often with a liberal arts degree, that get some training before they go into the field, and a lot of technical support once they do. The remote support center does most of the troubleshooting of problems using their advanced diagnostic tools and training. And there are service specialists for each modality, typically with an advanced degree and/or a lot of field service experience, that go on-site for the more technical jobs.
The future of imaging engineers has changed quite a bit and will almost certainly continue to evolve. As long as humans are using the scanners, and we can get the tools and documents we need at a reasonable price (as we are legally entitled) or can continue to reverse engineer the equipment enough to service it in spite of the OEMs’ lockout strategies, I believe that field imaging engineer jobs will be secure for quite a few years to come.
Jim Carr is Director of Service and International Operations for AUE. He may be contacted via email at JCarr@auetulsa.com.