Effective Use of Industrial Design in Rapid Product Development

Bill Evans

September 1, 1999

15 Min Read
Effective Use of Industrial Design in Rapid Product Development

Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry Magazine
MDDI Article Index

An MD&DI September 1999 Column

Cover Story

Bill Evans and Ricardo Salinas

Increasingly, medical technology companies are realizing the importance of industrial design in today's competitive marketplace. But product design managers at these companies are finding themselves overwhelmed by the speed at which industrial design is evolving, and by the confusing array of available options such as user studies, modeling, and prototyping techniques, to name a few. They may also face a lack of support from managers in related departments who view industrial design as more of a styling contribution than a key to bringing a product to market successfully. This article will help in-house managers understand and communicate the importance of industrial design and how to use it efficiently and cost-effectively.


Developing a product broadly mimics an accelerated version of Darwinian evolution. A manager gathers resources, then tests the idea. Critique and creativity shape the next iteration. To push the analogy, it is best to go to market with a product that has evolved as many generations as possible before being released.

Creativity and critique are industrial designers' core tools for placing themselves in the positions of purchasers and users and then maximizing the product features that will appeal to these groups. They consider ergonomics, product configuration, user interface, and appearance to ensure that the product appeals to the target group of customers and reflects well on their company's maturity and brand equity. Having encouraged creative thought within the company, industrial designers have the right tools for the crucial examination and feedback of product ideas.


Vision is key to successful design, and industrial designers should excel at crystallizing that product vision. Each member of the product team—marketing managers, engineers, manufacturing engineers—comes to the table with a different set of partisan needs. From the initial concept to the investment in GMP-compliant manufacturing infrastructure, designers in the medical environment contend with a chorus of multiple, conflicting demands.

For example, in designing a surgical laser for a minimally invasive office procedure, marketing may want the device to be as small as possible, with the lowest cost and highest reliability, while manufacturing may want the product to have a generous enclosure that lowers labor expense. Engineering, on the other hand, might want to add capabilities for extra features needed in the future—features that can increase cost.

Loose sketches of the Epic laser head from Coherent Inc. (Santa Clara, CA). Industrial designers turn out loose sketches, like these, in a matter of hours to help team members see the results of their specifications.

Industrial designers help isolate these competing demands, prioritize them, and, most importantly, synthesize them. Their strength lies in their skill at using a common visual language, rather than complex, wordy product specifications and descriptions. By using models, sketches, and early prototypes, industrial designers are able to reconcile the product team's differing needs.

The final prototype of the Coherent Epic laser head shown in sketches above.

User demonstrating features of the Cryogen First Option appearance model.

Loose sketches of the CryoGen Inc. (San Diego) First Option product featured on the cover and on opposite page.


In the medical device industry, every project manager is charged with trying to develop new, high-quality, low-cost products as quickly as possible. This is referred to as the "faster, cheaper, better" adage. Common sense might suggest that, at most, companies could attain only two of these goals; however, if industrial design is well applied, it can help companies reach all three.

Three steps in the design of Mentor Corp.'s Detector product: (Top) Simple 2-D CAD is the quickest way to turn ideas into accurately proportioned sketches for making foam models. (Center) Making quick handmade foam models like these is a fast way to experience gripping and interacting with the product. (Bottom) The final product.

Industrial design helps speed process development by exploring and narrowing the possibilities early on. As previously mentioned, industrial designers' use of numerous models and prototypes allows employees to explore rough product ideas and provide critical feedback at a very early stage. By contributing speed and quality, industrial design helps product development teams reach the additional goal—saving money.


Developing successful products requires strong multidisciplinary teams that communicate well and consider all the ramifications of design on product development and production cycles. Industrial design is ultimately an interdisciplinary process and should not be tied too closely to only one management function, such as marketing, engineering, or manufacturing. It is important for managers to create a culture for product development that fosters this interdisciplinary approach, whether the company uses in-house or external industrial design resources. For instance, for optimum market feedback, engineers, industrial designers, and the marketing team could jointly observe medical procedures and discuss firsthand with users possible project enhancements. Companies could also insist that industrial designers be present in the room when topics such as manufacturing, servicing, and regulatory affairs are discussed. Keeping industrial designers in the loop and making sure they are aware of the big picture is another way to help them synthesize the conflicting desires of multidisciplinary teams.


Managers also need to encourage the product development team to take risks and accept the fact that mistakes are inevitable during the entire development process. What is important is how a team identifies these mistakes and corrects them.

For example, early concept sketches may contain product ideas that the team as a whole feels are unrealistic. However, creating some product sketches that explore these ideas and then showing them to appropriately selected company managers and customers will garner valuable course-correcting comments. In fact, non—team members may find the "blue sky" approach appropriate and possibly worth the extra time and money to develop.


Good industrial design comes from constant inspiration. Managers can create innovative exhibits to spur on their team. For instance, General Electric has a design center at Appliance Park in Kentucky with "theme" meeting rooms for all competing brands of refrigerators, stoves, washing machines, etc. What better way to be reminded of competitive pressure than to be surrounded by it at regular team meetings?

For speed, this small keyboard was laser cut and then surrounded with hand-formed foam.

Managers should also look to unrelated industries for inspiration. For example, if a company is trying to develop a new level of miniaturization in a complex implantable mechanism, it could buy the latest micro disk drive for a laptop computer and have an engineering intern dismantle it to make a show-and-tell wall display.


It is critical that a company understand when to bring industrial design into its development process. In general, the earlier industrial design is introduced, the better. Critique will be more honest at the stage when emotional and monetary investment is low and people are being asked to filter 10 to 20 different concepts.

However, companies should look at each product on a case-by-case basis. The exact point at which one introduces industrial design can depend on the type of product and the nature of the technology being used. For a company primarily concerned with the efficacy of catheters for minimally invasive surgery, it may be appropriate to prove the technology before product designers become involved. In contrast, for a console of a surgical laser product, industrial designers may need to get involved early in the process. In the latter case, the company cannot begin to design the chassis for the control system until some of the user-oriented requirements have been established, such as a user interface and convenient ergonomic package.


During the product development cycle, managers should repeatedly recite this mantra regarding prototyping: "Early, appropriately, and often." Potential users should be involved in reviewing design ideas as early in the process as possible to find out where those ideas succeed or fail. Prototypes need to be tailored at the minimum level required to test the design idea, but picking the most appropriate level of prototyping is difficult. At a late stage, a prototype that is too simplistic will probably result in a substandard product, whereas one that is too sophisticated early on will certainly waste money and time. The rapid prototyping industry believes that the fastest method is to use computer modeling techniques and then create 3-D models from those data. This is often inappropriate, but people hold on to the idea that this is the only way to develop products quickly. Industrial designers, with their looser, faster concept-presentation tools, can often be more effective.


Cutting corners is sometimes recommended in pursuit of an optimum design process. For example, if a company is worried whether or not its 40-lb product can really be carried by a user, it can buy a couple of cheap suitcases—one with wheels and one without—and load them with concrete blocks. Within a day, it will have a rough answer and can move on to trying out different handle or caster locations to improve on the concept.

Project Web sites can be set up in minutes using text-based interfaces and a simple presentation. Images, such as this detailing of a ventilation strategy developed for the Coherent Epic laser head, as well as other Web-based communication tools can be viewed at http://www.stevensonsrocket.com.

If a company is concerned whether or not potential users can handle the complex, single-handed manipulation of a new tool for minimally invasive surgery, for example, one strategy is to make ergonomic models that initially focus only on getting manipulator parts of the correct size to move with approximately the desired force. By taking a shortcut in this way, several relatively complex mechanism and ergonomic manipulation concepts can be examined in a matter of days and critiqued by end-users.


The range of industrial design tools can be confusing. The following overview explains these options and how they best fit into a company's product development process.

Early Concept Development. In the early concept stage, the design exercise should tend toward a loose, fast process. The object is to generate a lot of ideas for the development team's use. Emphasis is on rapid communication and the quantity of ideas, rather than on refinement. At this stage, a number of approaches should be considered:

  • Brainstorming. Given their tendency toward creativity and their visualizing abilities, industrial designers are particularly adept at brainstorming. They tend to "open up" ideas, while manufacturing engineers tend to "finish" ideas. Industrial designers are also good at putting ideas into pictures rather than words. The most effective brainstorming sessions include a combination of professionals from a cross-functional team who are willing to defer judgment, keep to one conversation at a time, and build on other people's ideas.

  • Concept Sketching. The days of concept renderings done by hand are far from over, but the emphasis has changed. Instead of highly detailed renderings, industrial designers create crude thumbnail sketches and then turn to inexpensive 2-D CAD packages that allow them to input ideas quickly and inexpensively. (For instance, there are numerous simple 2-D CAD packages that now cost less than $1000, a decrease from many thousands of dollars only three years ago.)

  • Foam Modeling. During the early concept development stage, product engineering managers need to rethink what constitutes rapid prototyping. Large 3-D CAD companies would have companies believe that their packages are the best solution. However, combining a 2-D CAD package with foam modeling provides a faster, less expensive solution. Three-dimensional CAD programs can cost close to $20,000 and take weeks or months to input complex surface data. Add to that the time and cost of rapid prototyping, which can take from two to five days and several thousand dollars per idea.

If a designer wants to try out some ideas for an ergonomic grip for a laparoscopic instrument, for example, he or she could complete 2-D sketches and hand-shaped foam models in under two days—all in-house. Sometimes, a designer can take this a step further by combining foam modeling with certain rapid prototyping processes. For instance, if a foam model requires an accurate keyboard to show a technician or nurse how to input data, it is possible to laser cut foam tightly for the keyboard and then integrate the keyboard with hand-generated foam parts. Laser cutting of foam has the advantage of being driven from 2-D rather than 3-D data, and hence can be cut within 24 to 48 hours by a laser cutting vendor.

As the ideas from these early sketches and foam models take shape, it is also possible to scan sketches into a computer and use PhotoShop or a similar program to "glamorize" the sketches. Again, this is faster than building in 3-D CAD and rendering in CAID (computer-aided industrial design).

  • User Interfaces. Console interfaces are key to many medical products. Computerized mock-ups of these interfaces work better than relying on traditional storyboards or complex written explanations. There are a number of computerized tools available that yield highly realistic interfaces. They require substantially less effort than using real hardware and firmware (embedded software). For instance, a program called Director (MacroMedia, San Francisco) can be used to mock up interfaces with realistic buttons, sounds, and screen changes. The computer mock-ups offer the advantage of growing as the product develops in sophistication, ultimately becoming a tight software specification.

  • Design Communication on the Web. Today, most medical product development efforts involve participants from throughout the United States and other countries. Communication within the team and with potential users and customers becomes critical. The Web is truly playing a revolutionary role in this regard by offering an open communication standard with free software that runs on browsers. In the past, if a designer wanted to share a CAD file with a colleague on the other side of the country, he or she would need to buy a CAD viewer costing from $300 to $3000. Today, the Web's open standard allows the use of simple, quick HTML editors to set up Web sites that can link geographically dispersed teams to the latest data, including scanned-in sketches, digital photography, and screen dumps from CAD. A noncommercial site that demonstrates many of the tools is available at http://www.stevensonsrocket.com.

On a more complex level, the Web enables a designer to output from his or her CAD package one of the standard Web formats, such as VRML (virtual reality markup language). With the 3-D Web data transfer standard, a colleague can open that VRML file in a browser and actually rotate and view the file as if it were being run in a $20,000 CAD package (examples). The only requirement for end-users is that they load a VRML plug-in, which is available free on the Web.

Refinement Stage. In early concept stages, the team uses relatively simple tools. But during later stages the appropriate tools must become more refined and precise. Typically, designers use three tools at the refinement stage:

  • Precise appearance models—sometimes known as hard models—that have some operational elements, such as a screen or ergonomic aspect.

  • CAID packages that can produce photo-realistic renderings of 3-D CAD models—like the characters in the movie "Toy Story," which were created with similar software.

  • Increasingly sophisticated user-interface models.

Because they are fairly expensive and time-consuming to generate, precise appearance models should only be used toward the end of the design refinement process. Typically, they are employed to prove the final idea and show it to customers and management. Such models are particularly appreciated by the marketing team, which can use them early on to start preparing their materials for marketing shows.

CAID produces renderings that can look identical to the finished product but can be costly. Much depends on the type of product and the final size. CAID clearly comes into its own for a large product, such as a CT scanner, where physical modeling would be prohibitively expensive. It is also useful for investigating alternative colors, textures, and graphics from a visual perspective. On the downside, CAID produces a nice picture, but one cannot pick it up, feel it, or appreciate its scale and should therefore be careful using it with highly ergonomic products.

Transitioning to Engineering. In the final stage of the transition from design to engineering, there are two critical issues to consider: boundaries between the different disciplines represented on the development team, and overlapping CAD tools. These are areas from which errors tend to creep into the product development process.

Today's product development process is technology driven, including mechanical CAD, electronic CAD, and paperless manufacturing systems. It is easy for managers to be lulled into a false sense of security, with design tools dictating the management approach. To compensate, companies need to meld design tools with design management, making sure that they do not test a new design management approach with new design tools on a new design project. For example, a classic problem between industrial design and engineering involves the transfer of data, with industrial design using one CAD system and engineering using another. The salespeople for these systems will say they "talk" to each other—more often than not, however, communication is superficial, the interface poor, and the process frustrating.


In a competitive medical market, design can make or break a product. The key to success lies in introducing industrial design into the overall design process at an early stage. Product design managers need to develop a multidisciplinary team that enables the industrial designer to play a key role—from initial concept to final product. Creative thinking by an effective industrial designer can lend insight to product development and help resolve conflicting opinions from team members that might otherwise prevent the product vision from becoming a reality.

Bill Evans is president and Ricardo Salinas is director of industrial design for Bridge Design Inc. (San Francisco).

Back to the MD&DI main page

Copyright ©1999 Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry

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

You May Also Like