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    Rights: The Royal Society, TVNZ 7 in partnership with the Ministry of Science and Innovation.
    Published 9 January 2012 Referencing Hub media

    Popular household appliance company Fisher & Paykel (F&P) has evolved from transforming the way we do dishes to improving the way people breathe.

    It all started with a humble glass kitchen jar. In the early 1970s, while Fisher & Paykel was still focused on the domestic appliance market, the company invested in research and development on a breathing device based on the classic Agee jar.

    Now, its medical arm F&P Healthcare is valued at $500 million. Research and development (R&D) remains a high priority with nearly a quarter of its staff working in this area. Sending designs to a 3D printer, the R&D team is able to test and improve its products quickly so that they can get to market and help the people who need it most.

    F&P Healthcare’s newest product range is the F&P ICON. What looks like a sleek bedside clock radio is actually a device to help sufferers of obstructive sleep apnoea get a good night’s rest. There are an estimated 60 million sleep apnoea sufferers in the developed world. The ICON’s properties include an advanced humidification algorithm and a breathing sensor to aid the user’s transition back to sleep.

    Humidity control is a vital ingredient in neonatal respiratory support and acute adult healthcare such as keyhole surgery. F&P Healthcare’s respiratory innovations also provide crucial support for medical professionals and their patients in these areas.

    Useful links

    Find out more about Fisher & Paykel.

    The Sleep Apnoea Association of NZ website has additional information.


    Medical care has come a long way since the start of the baby boom. Fisher and Paykel became the name in every Kiwi home, then branched out into medical equipment by designing a humidifier for patients on hospital ventilators. It was called the AG2 after the jar.

    F&P committed research and development money to the prototype glass jar, soon the whiteware maker was in the medical market.

    The business started back more than 40 years ago with a heated humidifier that was developed here in Auckland and that technology has really served as a basis for the development of the business over the last 40 years.

    F&P Healthcare split from Appliances in 2001 and is now valued at half a billion dollars. They employ 1700 people at their Auckland site with nearly a quarter of them working in research and development.

    We’ve created an environment both physical and mentally if you like that encourages innovation. And to provide the resources necessary to be able to conduct effective research and development where we have and laboratories and workshops and the like that are designed specifically for that purpose. And we encourage people to work in teams and to focus on particular patient groups or particular medical conditions that allow them to really understand what’s needed. And in conjunction with working with clinicians to come up with solutions.

    These are our rapid prototype machines or commonly known as 3-D printers these days. These particular ones operate on a principal called Fused Deposition Modeling which means they melt a plastic and deposit it or extrude it in layers to build up the part. This particular method gives you parts which are quite representative of real molded parts, about 80% of the strength of a real part.

    The 3D printer allows prototypes that would have taken weeks to create to be printed as soon as they’re designed. It’s a fast track for innovation.

    So we can work on our model and make some changes and then print it over night, and come in the next morning and actually try them on either models like this, or on ourselves.

    Ministry of Science and Innovation funding is helping further research into breathing devices for hospitals and sleep apnoea sufferers.

    It’s estimated there could be 60 million people in the more developed world with obstructive sleep apnoea. We think around 10 million of those have been diagnosed so far. 

    People with obstructive sleep apnoea constantly wake up because their airway closes and they stop breathing. A constant flow of air in and out of the lungs creates positive pressure to keep their windpipe open. F&P’s humidification technology stops a patient’s airways drying out and their latest development may become iconic for apnoea sufferers.

    Icon is our newest product range, it’s designed to appeal psychologically to the patient, it looks like it belongs in the bedroom, it looks a bit like a bedside clock radio. And it also has a number of physiologically important features to treat the patient and to help them be comfortable with their treatment and be compliant or stay with the treatment, because that can be an issue.

    Along with their focus on humidification and sleep apnoea, the company exports their high tech infant resuscitation cosy cot to neo natal departments around the world. And their latest medical break through brings their humidification techniques to keyhole surgery. The cold dry air surgeons use to push organs apart can cause hypothermia and scarring. A problem F&P solved by bringing humidifiers into surgery. Innovation has come a long way since the preserving jar.

    This is part of the Innovation Stories series produced in partnership with the Ministry of Science and Innovation, it featured on TVNZ 7 during the Spotlight on Science + Innovation month in August 2011.