Concurrent Engineering and Partnerships Reduce Time, Cost

Originally Published MDDI April 2001R&D Horizons Approaching concurrent engineering as a mind-set enables design and manufacturing teams to bring products to market sooner.Ellen Pauli

April 1, 2001

12 Min Read
Concurrent Engineering and Partnerships Reduce Time, Cost

Originally Published MDDI April 2001

R&D Horizons

Approaching concurrent engineering as a mind-set enables design and manufacturing teams to bring products to market sooner.

Ellen Pauli

Many who attempt to implement concurrent engineering across an organization and partner network meet with resistance and frustration, because they are too busy trying to adopt the principles—not the thinking behind them. At its core, concurrent engineering is the application of proactive thinking; the typical principles of forming a cross-functional team, estimating a project's scope at its outset, using the latest technology, and performing design reviews at every stage simply support this premise. Therefore, if all participants understand that they can help bring a product to market faster and less expensively by applying concurrent engineering at each project phase, the challenge is well on the way to being met. For Proxima Therapeutics Inc. (Alpharetta, GA), a designer and developer of cancer treatment products, and its silicone device manufacturing partner, Vesta Inc. (Franklin, WI), for example, embracing concurrent engineering with this mind-set has helped them reap its time- and cost-saving advantages.

When concurrent engineering is practiced in a partnership, "it is essential for the partner to be involved early and to understand the big picture," says Rance Winkler, vice president of research and development at Proxima. This helps to foster proactive thinking because the partner can be looking down the road at ways to reduce the cycle time. If a company limits its partner's involvement to only one aspect, the full benefit of the partner's expertise is not realized and the OEM is not likely to gain any efficiencies the partner can lend. "In our experience with Vesta, getting them involved in all aspects meant they were committed to our ultimate goal and to working proactively to meet it," Winkler says.


Proxima and Vesta recently put their concurrent engineering philosophy to work on a new technology, conceived and developed by Proxima, for a radiation therapy product for treating breast cancer. The patented device, called the MammoSite Radiation Therapy System (RTS), is a balloon catheter designed for temporary implantation to deliver radiation to a resected tumor cavity. The catheter and balloon subassembly, manufactured by Vesta, consists of a silicone applicator shaft (catheter), a balloon, a silicone tip assembly, and a polycarbonate stiffener with end cap (see Figure 1). A central lumen in the catheter serves as the pathway for placement of a radioactive seed, while a smaller lumen is used for inflation of the balloon. The product is currently in clinical trials. (An investigational device, the MammoSite RTS is limited by federal law to investigational use.)

Figure 1. The catheter's central lumen is used in placing a radioactive seed; a smaller lumen is used for balloon inflation.


The first concurrent engineering step in this project was to form a cross-functional team with representatives from research and development, engineering, manufacturing, regulatory affairs, quality, marketing and sales, purchasing, scientific affairs (to deal with radiation issues), and clinical affairs. Having a team "allowed everyone to be involved in the project at all times," Winkler states. "At any time, when any issue came up, we could all pull together and make decisions quickly—addressing challenges in minutes instead of the days or weeks it might take otherwise."


It was important for the cross-functional team to be in place in order to execute the next concurrent engineering step, which was to calculate the project's scope. Together, the team determined timelines, cost estimates, and all of the product life-cycle activities that would be involved at each phase. An important step was constructing a Gantt chart, which permitted everyone to see what would be happening at every moment and helped determine which tasks could be performed simultaneously by team members.

Team members consulted the chart daily, with a special focus on critical development path items. "At weekly team meetings, as well as spontaneous meetings, we asked, 'Is there any reason we won't be able to meet the timeline?'" Winkler explains. "If there was, we resolved it."

At this stage, Proxima began working with Vesta—whose services include silicone extrusion, molding, bonding, and assembly—on identifying ways to shorten the development path. For example, it was determined that, during the initial concept phase, Vesta could begin evaluating materials and preparing for tooling.


With team assembly and project scope estimations behind them, the team was ready to move on to design. (The device design would be based on a similar balloon-catheter concept that had been developed for brain cancer radiation treatment.) The balloon catheter is inserted into a tumor cavity, following breast tumor removal, to deliver radiation homogeneously to the target tissue. Compared with conventional interstitial brachytherapy—which delivers radiation to a tumor site through a complex, multicatheter system—the device places a single radioactive source in the center of a silicone balloon. This causes the radiation to propagate outward in a homogeneous manner to a uniform and controlled depth around the balloon to the target tissue.

To determine optimal balloon sizes and shapes for accommodating the various sizes of tumor cavities, Proxima interviewed surgeons, held focus groups, observed lumpectomies, and studied MRI images and CT scans of tumors and cavities. "Based on surgeons' findings, we decided to develop the product in both spherical and ellipsoidal shapes," states Winkler. "The balloon size and shape being used in our clinical trial has a 4-cm spherical diameter, while the ellipsoidal balloons, currently being developed, will be available in multiple sizes."

Achieving the exact balloon shapes and sizes was critical for ensuring proper conformance to the resected tumor cavities. Symmetry was important as well, says Winkler, for maintaining a homogeneous distribution of the radiation dose. "We needed the catheter shaft to be positioned at the balloon's exact center, so that in practice, when the radioactive seed is introduced, it irradiates evenly."

To meet these criteria, "it was very valuable to have an experienced partner working with us from the start," Winkler explains, "one with knowledge and understanding of silicone material properties along with experience in balloon production. This helped us establish a practical set of design parameters."

Concurrently, Vesta began testing an array of silicone elastomers to assist with material specification, including the bonding material for attaching the balloon to the catheter. The device components are made from molded and extruded silicone elastomers to ensure the highest possible biocompatibility. Silicone, being a radiolucent material, does not inhibit the delivery of radiation to the tumor site.


The use of CAD simulations with 3-D modeling was another concurrent engineering component that accelerated the development cycle and saved costs. The development of design reviews was facilitated by this strategy because the process allowed the companies involved to evaluate the design in 3-D and make modifications in a timely manner. Redesigns downstream were minimized as well. In addition, CAD modeling minimized tooling changes, enabling the analysis and evaluation of design changes before metal was cut.


As a result of its early involvement, Vesta was able to recommend a change in the balloon's wall thickness. "The initial design called for thinner walls," explains Bill Woinowski, research and development manager at Vesta, "but with that specification, we would have been unable to ensure consistent wall thicknesses. Making the walls slightly thicker allowed us to obtain the consistency needed for proper balloon inflation and radiation distribution. It was an example of refining design specifications to optimize the product's manufacturability, while ensuring best quality."


A proprietary rapid prototyping process was employed to accelerate prototype modeling and assembly. The process is based on the molding of liquid silicone rubber in low volumes with rapid setup, using liquid injection molding presses and pumps designed in-house. The prototypes are molded using the same material specified for full production units. This allows engineers to evaluate devices in their final form, which yields more accurate test results and may help to shorten the approval process. All research and development projects using the process offer full traceability.


In-process testing was conducted for burst strength, leakage, and symmetry. These tests included 100% testing on all of the balloons to ensure that specifications were met.

Additional secondary operations included use of a low-profile tipping and marking technology to produce radiopaque markings that extend continuously around the diameter of the catheter. This permits the catheter's position to be viewed from any angle with conventional imaging.


Through the use of concurrent engineering, the device manufacturer and its principal supplier met their deadline by completing the product design approximately nine months earlier than would have been possible without such cooperation. In terms of cost, the project was within 5% of the original estimate. As Winkler states, "This was truly an example of engineering and manufacturing working together, with an eye on the next phase at all times, to solve a design challenge."

Ellen Pauli is the senior technical writer for Tritech, a Chicago area-based firm providing business-to-business consulting to the medical device manufacturing industry and other manufacturing industries nationwide.

Copyright ©2001 Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry

Sign up for the QMED & MD+DI Daily newsletter.

You May Also Like