Our society is undergoing a digital revolution that affects every aspect of public and private life, as symbolized by the dramatic shift from film to digital cameras. In the early 1970s, engineers at Fujifilm were already beginning to research and develop the foundational technologies for FCR (Fuji Computed Radiography), the world’s first device to display medical diagnostic X-rays digitally. FCR started a global wave of innovation in medical-use X-ray imaging, and today it remains a world-class technology contributing to people’s health and quality of life around the world.
Before FCR, taking an X-ray meant passing X-rays through the human body onto film and developing that film to create a finished image. The process was entirely analog. In the image, the portions of the body through which X-rays passed more readily appeared black, and those through which they passed less readily appeared white. An image of the interior of the human body could be obtained, yet the photographic parameters could vary considerably based upon the particulars of the patient and the body part being X-rayed. As a result, the skill and experience of the X-ray technician played a major role in the resulting image quality.
It was clear to Fujifilm’s experts that not much more could be done to improve X-ray diagnostics in the analog realm, and other diagnostic technologies were starting to go digital. There was a real fear that X-rays would get left out of the digital revolution, and Fujifilm’s engineers knew they had to innovate or see the market slip away from them. But then a hint at the ultimate solution appeared: digital image processing. At the time, NASA was transmitting photographs of planet Earth via satellite and using the new science of digital processing to create images that were stunningly beautiful. Capturing, storing, and transmitting X-ray images in a digital format would certainly contribute greatly to efficiency, and the digital processing of diagnostic images could add immense value in a wide variety of applications.
“If we digitally process medical X-rays, then we can greatly reduce inconsistencies in image quality and can offer medical professionals an invaluable resource for improved diagnosis.” Based on this vision, Fujifilm’s engineers began exploring how digital diagnostic imaging systems might deliver real value. After much discussion, they came up with the basic concept for FCR: the system would record X-ray information with a high-sensitivity imaging plate, perform digital processing with a computer, and allow the display of images on a computer monitor or photographic film.
1983 World's First FCR
FCR featured three leading-edge technological innovations. First was the high-sensitivity imaging plate, which made possible the capture of X-ray information. Second was an optical scanning device that applied a laser to the imaging plate, converting the image information it had stored into a digital signal. Third was the diagnostic algorithm that converted the electrical signal from the scanning device into an optimized diagnostic image. These innovations were linked to form a unified diagnostic imaging system.
At the time, Fujifilm was primarily a chemicals company with photographic film as its main product. Developing a revolutionary imaging device that could capture X-ray data with extremely high sensitivity, speed, and density would have been a daunting task for a large electronics company. Yet Fujifilm, whose R&D staff consisted mostly of chemical engineers, took on the big challenge.
In the FCR system, the imaging plate recorded the X-ray data as light, fluorescing in proportion to the strength of the stimulation by the X-rays. This light could in turn be processed as information by the system. To achieve the breakthrough that would make the system viable, Fujifilm’s engineers needed to identify the ideal photostimulable phosphor to use in the imaging plate. The problem was that there were over 1,000 known phosphors, and finding the perfect one presented a significant challenge. Moreover, Fujifilm had virtually no expertise in this field. Nevertheless, far from shying away from this task, the engineers took it on with enthusiasm.
“The ideal phosphor is out there, and we will find it.” Starting out with unshakable confidence that they could find the phosphor that would make the imaging plate able to record highly precise diagnostic images, the engineers began their search. Their determination, at times bordering on obsession, paid off. They explored an incredibly wide range of phosphors, even those other companies had abandoned as unfeasible for use. After two years of hard work, the engineers at last identified BaFBr:Eu as the best phosphor that could make the imaging plate and thus FCR a reality.
Successfully combining the imaging plate with other key innovations, Fujifilm launched FCR in 1983. The positive effect this product immediately produced in medical facilities around the world was truly revolutionary.
By applying optimized digital processing based on the area of the body being X-rayed and other conditions, FCR delivered images that were much less affected by the X-ray technician’s skill and expertise and therefore easier to read and use in diagnosis. Since the imaging plate was highly sensitive, smaller doses of X-rays were needed to capture an image. Moreover, the system greatly reduced the need to retake X-rays, resulting in even less exposure to X-rays for the patient. Finally, the use of digital information made possible a wide variety of processing, allowing medical professionals to extract specific valuable information that could not be derived from conventional photographic X-rays.
Of course, digital information was much easier to store, transmit, and manage, resulting in a lower cost in both the diagnostic and clerical functions of a medical facility. At the same time, speed increased in every link of the chain of information management. As the Internet became more and more important in medicine, Fujifilm leveraged its power and in 1999 launched SYNAPSE, an IT solution that facilitated the sharing of digital images within and between medical facilities. Moreover, since its launch, Fujifilm has also developed DR (digital radiography) systems that do not require an imaging plate.
The medical diagnostic revolution FCR began is ongoing. Integrating more and more innovations, FCR and the other systems it has inspired grow ever more powerful and impactful.