Between five and 10 per cent of people living in Europe will suffer from serious hearing problems at some point in their lives. The main cause is age and the next most common cause is noise.
Old-style hearing aids were bulky, unsightly and not very comfortable to wear. But in 1989 in Lynge, near Copenhagen, work began on a new generation of hearing devices.
Danish researchers decided to use computer graphics to produce perfectly shaped devices which fitted exactly into a person’s ear canal. This technology is now the basis for just about all hearing aids produced the world over.
Danish engineer Jan Topholm is behind this technology. He explained the benefits: “You get a better fit in the ear, which is very important for the function: it has to be tight, otherwise the hearing aid would rustle, and in this way you can make a shell that fits the ear much more precisely than you could with the old method.”
The process starts with a laser scan of the patient’s ear. This produces a detailed 3D picture which technicians can manipulate easily.
Based on this model, another laser shapes a special plastic, layering up wafer-thin slices of the material.
After three hours the device is ready to be fitted.
Patient Jeppe Ring Laursen said the device gave him a new lease of life.
“My life has changed so that I can actually hear now. It is not natural hearing, but it’s so much better that I can have a normal job, I have my friends, I go out in the city. It is the last thing I do in the evening, take them out and put them on the table, beside the bed, and the first thing I do in the morning is to grab them from the table and put them in the ear, and turn them on. I need them, just to live.”
65-year-old Jan Topholm has spent most his life working on hearing aids. He works in the factory that was created by his father, and where his sons now work, too. He is among the nominees for the European Inventor Award, organised by the European Patent Office, which takes place this month in Copenhagen.