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There has been a lot of chatter over the past few years about the consumerization of medical devices: As more medical products are designed for patient use, medical device manufacturers increasingly will be inspired by consumer product design. That's the thinking, anyway. Eric Larson, the owner and Chief Engineer of Art of Mass Production (San Diego, CA), isn't buying it. Not that he is opposed to the idea; on the contrary, he believes that medtech companies should be headed in that direction but, thus far, have taken only baby steps.

Norbert Sparrow

April 23, 2015

3 Min Read
Lady Gaga's insulin pump

Apple, Samsung and Google invest vast sums of money on the user experience, writes Larson on his blog, www.plasticsguy.com, but instead of fixating on the beeps, pops and clicks, they focus on the ooohs and the aaahs. "They use technology to enhance the user experience," says Larson. "Where is the oooh and aaah in medical technology?" Or, as he asked during a session in the DuPont room at NPE2015, "If Lady Gaga were a diabetic, what would her insulin pump look like?" Tell me more, I asked Larson during a phone interview after we had both recovered from the massive plastics event in Orlando, FL.

Lady GagaLarson thinks that medical device companies should take a page out of the consumer electronics design playbook. "You know, innovate or die. Just consider the idea of taking a little box and stuffing music into it—who would buy that?" asks Larson, laughing. It's a way of thinking, umm, outside the box, that has permeated the consumer electronics realm but is still banging on the gates of medtech world.

The fundamental difference, posits Larson, is in the leadership. "The leaders in medtech are highly intelligent people—physicians, scientists, researchers—but they are focused on the technology, not on the recipients of the technology."

That perspective, combined with his ideas on design elements that engage the senses of the user, which he articulated at NPE2015 during a presentation titled, "Material Selection Based On Feel - A Methodology for Technical Evaluation," is distilled into some provocative thoughts. During that session, Larson cited the design of a power tool he worked on. "It needed a solid feel and powerful sound, with audible clicks," he said. The whine of a dental drill, for example, was not going to send the appropriate message. (Engaging all of the user's five senses through innovative product design underpins Larsen's approach to his chosen craft.)

By the same token, why must dental drills have that sound that makes our skin crawl? "The first thing you hear when you step into a dentist's office is the whine of that drill. Why not change the sound?" asks Larson. The technology is available. "Does anyone ask the patient, what color appeals to you? What sound would make you comfortable?" he asks rhetorically. For that matter, why does prescription medicine have to come in such drab containers? "Why can't I get a liquid medication in a bottle made of frosted glass, cool to the touch, with a stopper that makes a soft thunk when you open it, like when you open a bottle of aged single-malt scotch?" asks Larson.

Larson does see rays of hope. Some hospitals are taking feel—which he defines simply as the human response to sensory input—into account through the use of non-jarring colors, floor coverings and acoustics that are designed to soothe patients.

In medical device design, Larson points to San Diego-based Dexcom, which produces continuous glucose monitoring systems, as an example to follow. "The company is focused on making small [devices] that are pleasing to the eye and comfortable to use," he says. "You're not whipping out this ugly thing at the restaurant because you need to check your glucose level." Medical devices don't have to be unattractive, says Larson. "Look at eyeglasses—they are out there. Why not glucose monitors?"

"Apple showed the world that user experience matters. Someone, some day, will discover that in the medtech world," says Larson. And, when that happens, would it be a stretch to imagine a line of Lady Gaga–branded medical devices?

Eric Larson is the author of Thermoplastic Material Selection: A Practical Guide, which will be published in June 2015. The book can be preordered at the online Elsevier Store.

Norbert Sparrow

Norbert Sparrow is Senior Editor at PlasticsToday. Follow him on twitter @norbertcsparrow and Google+.

About the Author(s)

Norbert Sparrow

Editor in chief of PlasticsToday since 2015, Norbert Sparrow has more than 30 years of editorial experience in business-to-business media. He studied journalism at the Centre Universitaire d'Etudes du Journalisme in Strasbourg, France, where he earned a master's degree.


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