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September 29, 1998

3 Min Read
Getting a handle on medical design

Looking for an edge in the medical marketplace? It can be difficult competing with major manufacturers, whose marketing and sales resources dwarf those of most OEMs. However, the following success story points to three major steps you can take to improve the chances of triumph in the highly exacting and lucrative world of medical instruments.

Gary Nelson, president of Matrix Technologies (East Greenwich, RI), wanted to take advantage of such in-house strengths as electronics and mechanical engineering while overcoming a lack of both marketing resources and capital. So when the company sought to introduce three new electronic pipetting devices and associated incremental upgrades, Nelson needed an edge.

"To compete successfully against the big boys, we had to offer a fully finished appearance and superior functionality," says Nelson. "We also had to find a way to keep costs down. Finally, we needed products that 'sold' themselves by their ergonomics and ease of use."

Using a three-pronged strategy, Matrix addressed each of these concerns. First, the instrument maker outsourced industrial design for the products to ensure that they would be comfortable to handle and aesthetically pleasing. According to Nelson, working with the industrial design (ID) firm Roche Harkins (Hollis, NH) let Matrix present itself as a serious contender in the marketplace.

Secondly, design work proceeded in an evolutionary manner. New features and capabilities were added by building on existing designs, reducing the major expense of either designing from scratch or performing a major redesign.

The third ingredient in Matrix's recipe for success is a strong reliance on ergonomics. All of its products are handheld devices, making the instruments' grip and balance critical to their success among end users.

Matrix's relationship with its ID firm dates back to 1984, when Matrix was founded. "At the time," says Nelson, "we earmarked scarce resources for industrial design because we believed these would be dollars well spent." Nelson was justified when Roche Harkins redesigned Matrix's first product, a single-channel, handheld pipettor (Figure 1). While its hydraulics and electronics were superior to existing models, the original handle design was too tall to operate inside a biohazard hood. Industrial designers reconfigured the straight-line path of internal components into a U-shape with a trigger and hand grip, cutting the height of the device in half and lowering its center of gravity. As a result, the instrument was better balanced and easier to handle inside the hood.

Power cord location was also shifted. In most handheld devices, the power cord runs out of the bottom of the grip. By locating the cord above the grip, the weight of the cord balances against the forward weight of the pipette, while a molded-in strain relief lets users bear some weight on the back of the hand and wrist. "The final result is that technicians can use a more relaxed grip, which reduces physical fatigue," says Jack Harkins, principal at Roche Harkins.

Keeping evolution in mind, Matrix and Roche Harkins embarked on the next product design--a family of multichannel pipettors (Figure 2). Several features from the single-channel model were retained. But this time, handle layout was inverted, placing the pipette tips below the grip. Again, this lowered the center of gravity and eliminated a cantilever motion that caused wrist fatigue commonly found in other handles.

A recent project, the cordless multichannel pipettor shown in Figure 3, verified Nelson's original assessment of outsourced ID. "If we had attempted to design this product from scratch," he says, "it would have taken one year and hundreds of thousands of dollars. But because we relied on our ID firm's expertise and an evolutionary approach, we were able to save both development time and costs."

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