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Engineering Better Medical Care via Innovation

By Steve Robbins

I’m always wowed by the innovative medical technologies being created by design engineers. As advances in medical imaging technology, computer hardware, 3D printing, and simulation software continue to become more sophisticated, the possibilities for medical breakthroughs seem endless.

A few years ago I had the privilege of listening to Dean Kamen, one of America’s greatest entrepreneurs and innovators — as well at a huge advocate for First Robotics — deliver a keynote address at a PTC Users Group Meeting. He spoke about a major medical device manufacturer approaching him with a request to redesign its dialysis machine. There were a number of negatives the company wanted to address:

  • Dialysis machines required a doctor and an assistant to run. It was a complicated procedure to perform, often taking place in a clinic or hospital.
  • The procedure was disturbing and invasive to the patient, who watched his/her blood being pumped through tubing that was visible on the exterior of the device.
  • The control and instrumentation on the machine was too complicated.

The medical device company wanted innovation. But it needed the machine quickly, and at a fixed price. Because of these limitations, the company suggested that Kamen start with the old design and improve upon it. Innovation on a budget, with time constraints and repurposing the existing design equals innovation? Kamen took the project, knowing what he was getting into, but warned the client they might not be able to meet the deadline. The project became the design that wouldn’t die, with the engineering team working on its own time to finish the device.

The result was the HomeChoice peritoneal dialysis system, which has basic controls that can be operated in the home. It has two buttons: stop and go. It changed the lives of people needing dialysis, and was truly innovative.

Printing Prototypes and Organs
Design in the medical device industry has a lot of new tools to work with today. Simulation and analysis play a big role, with groundbreaking work going on in the fields of biomedical, surgery, prosthetics and orthopedics. 3D printing is bringing medical devices to market in record time. It’s being used in medical centers to create functional medical models and custom-build medical devices. 3D printers are even being used to create human organs.

I came across a case study on the Seattle Children’s Hospital, where 3D Systems’ desktop 3D printers were being used for printing respiratory device interfaces for premature babies from CT data. Because of the rapid changes in the infants’ developing nasal and oral passages, the interfaces had to be redesigned multiple times until the babies could breathe on their own. 3D printing could make that happen.

Speeding Care Delivery
Simulation software is being used on babies with skull disorders to assist in surgery to help separate fused bone structures, which happens in about 1 in 2,000 births. ANSYS multiphysics software has also helped improve patient outcomes through reduced surgery duration.

Using rapid prototyping, Honeywell/Logica has brought video endoscopes to military surgeons, allowing them to perform arthroscopic surgeries in the field. Stratasys rapid prototyping products enabled the endoscope design to move much faster through conception so it could be deployed faster.

Prototypes are of the upmost importance when time is critical. Whether a medical emergency, needing a custom-built part immediately, or bringing a product to market on time, the tools that design teams have today are able to produce better results and enable companies to compete in the global economy. They also enable innovation.

Every year DE’s staff is lucky enough to be on invited to report on the cutting edge of the technologies great designers create. Please, let us know the stories of how your designs will change the world.

Steve Robbins is the CEO of Level 5 Communications and executive editor of DE. Send comments about this subject to de-editors@deskeng.com.

About Steve Robbins

Steve Robbins is the former co-owner and publisher of Desktop Engineering.