Industrial Designers Provide Insights on Product Development

True mobility in medical products is a wish, not a reality, says Rex Bare, president of Omnica Corp., the Irvine, Calif., firm that developed two oxygen devices that enable people to move about freely for extended periods of time.

"Every portable device has a requirement to have an equally portable battery," Bare says. "And although battery technology has come a long way, it's still the limiting factor in almost everything we do. You have to keep coming back to your charger or to a new battery. What everybody is watching for is battery technology where you can put more and more energy into a smaller package. Maybe it will turn out to be hydrogen fuel cells."

Bare and Earl Robinson, vice president of industrial design for Omnica, are featured in a "Design Insights" interview on Eastman Chemical Co.'s Eastman Innovation Lab Web site,www.EastmanInnovationLab.com/medical, for designers and brand owners.

Omnica specializes in medical devices and developed the Inogen One™ and HELiOs™ oxygen devices. The battery-powered Inogen One weighs 9.5 lbs. and is the first oxygen concentrator approved for use on airlines.

Inogen One came from a venture-funded company. Bare says that the best ideas tend to come from venture-funded companies because established companies often are more about creating the next generation of what they've already been doing. "They are a little less likely to break out with something that's totally innovative. It is harder for them because they have so much vested-interest in their manufacturing technology. A venture-funded company can start from scratch. They have no pre-existing technology limitations."

Bare adds that there is a trend toward large companies doing venture funding within their corporate structure. "We're starting to see some big companies come back with internally funded venture programs that are just as innovative as anything we've seen from the entrepreneurs."

One of the trends in medical devices is downsizing products, which presents problems for an aging population that is coping with products the size they are now.

"Consumer electronics has set expectations for all of the features that should be in a product," Bare says. "In many of the medical products, we literally design an on/off button or maybe not even that. We're big advocates of dumbing down medical devices."

"We fight what we call creeping elegance on a daily basis," explains Robinson. "People will come in with a product definition and it will have a certain number of features. As the project moves forward, they tend to add features. Part of our job is to beat that back and stop it. The natural inclination is to make things more complex. The reality is that as soon as the project starts to get simple, you're there."

Another major trend is home health care. Bare sees this putting more and more demand on medical devices because the environment is even less predictable in a home setting than it is in a hospital. He notes, "In a hospital or doctor's office, you don't worry about dogs, cats and little kids — all of the things you do have to worry about in a home. The device has to be designed to be foolproof and harder to mess up. A lot of the human interface on a device is done by the people who program the electronics. Programmers do things for reasons that are logical to a programmer but not to a normal human being. For most devices, there's absolutely nothing to tell you what to do first. You don't know which button to push. It's not that these products are complicated. It's that the design is horrible. And there have been very few successful efforts to make them intelligible to the average person."

Bare and Robinson counsel designers to approach medical devices from a comprehensive perspective. The complexity of medical product development includes consideration of industrial design, human interest factors, mechanical engineering, electronics, software and regulatory issues, among others. "You really need the whole of human knowledge, if you will, to design a product that involves as much complexity as today's devices do," Bare says.

This article originally appeared in the October 2006 issue of HME Business.

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