July 1, 1999

4 Min Read
Believe The Impossible

Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry Magazine
MDDI Article Index

An MD&DI July 1999 Column

Engineering Executive Tests Experts' Advice

Having spent his childhood as a poor farm boy in Kansas, Michael Wolf is well aware of those defining moments that can alter the course of a life. He never had the advantage of a college education to help shape his career. In fact, his greatest challenge was building a career for himself—an accomplishment he attributes to luck, seized opportunities, and the firm belief that anything is possible. Today, Wolf is vice president of engineering for Cell Robotics International Inc. (Albuquerque), a company that manufactures, markets, and distributes scientific and medical laser devices.

Wolf's life might have taken a different turn had it not been for a fateful event that occurred while he was in the Air Force. "I took the entry exam and qualified to work in electronics as well as aircraft mechanics," he says. "I was more interested in mechanics because I had always enjoyed working on cars, but the quota for mechanics school had already been filled and I found myself in electronics school instead."

After five years in the Air Force, Wolf started working for Friden Inc. in Omaha, NE, maintaining and servicing mechanical and electronic office calculators. After several years with the company he started work as a staff member in the instrumentation group for Los Alamos National Laboratory (Los Alamos, NM). His responsibilities included designing hardware and writing software for a number of devices, primarily small, battery-operated, microprocessor-controlled instruments for measuring radiation. "Los Alamos was very education oriented," says Wolf, "and I was fortunate enough to have a boss who believed in me."

During his 24 years with Los Alamos, Wolf was the lead designer of three instruments that won the R&D 100 Award for being among the 100 most significant technological advances of the year. The awards were given for a miniaturized radiation monitor that clips onto a shirt collar; a portable, battery-operated multichannel analyzer that measures the energy of gamma rays; and the first 16-bit portable computer.

In 1991, Wolf left Los Alamos because he felt that his creativity was being stifled. He worked for Amtech Systems Corp. (Dallas) as senior engineer on a system to electronically tag railroad cars in Europe. After a few years he left Amtech and started working for Cell Robotics, a company founded by former employees of Los Alamos. The company's focus was on biological research instruments and eventually evolved into the manufacture of medical instruments.

According to Wolf, there are several salient differences between working in government as opposed to private industry. "When working for industry, cost and manufacturing are important because you have to make a profit, and you have to build things in large numbers. You also need to look at the overall picture. At Los Alamos, we weren't too concerned about manufacturing issues because we never made more than 10 or 12 units. We didn't have to worry about whether or not the parts we used would still be available in 10 years, and we didn't have to worry about regulatory issues because we were building prototypes rather than manufacturing devices."

He recommends that every engineer spend some time working as a technician doing field repair and assembly. "It's important to gain a perspective of how products are assembled and how easy it is to install and operate them in the real world." Wolf has put this approach to the test with the design of several products for Cell Robotics, including the Lasette, the LaserTweezers, and the LaserScissors.

The Lasette, designed to replace a lancet, uses a small laser to produce a hole in the skin that allows blood to be drawn virtually painlessly. The LaserTweezers and the LaserScissors employ lasers to cut and manipulate cells. Wolf believes that this technology can turn laboratory procedures into routine functions that can be performed in the home. Such is the case with the second version of the Lasette, which has been approved by FDA for home use and should be available by prescription in mid-1999. "I believe in the KIS principle," says Wolf. "Keep it simple. You don't want an elaborate user interface in the hands of people who want to use a device as an appliance. It's best to keep the controls simple and intuitive, so that someone who has never seen the product before can operate it."

Although Wolf sometimes heeds the advice of so-called experts, he also recommends caution. "People who are 'experts' know what has been done and may think they know what can't be done. This isn't always the case." He says, "There are laws of physics, and there are 'laws of physics' that are really myths of physics. The really creative task is to discover which is which." Wolf applies this philosophy not only to his work as a designer and engineer but also to his life in general. "If you think something can be done, it probably can. With all the technology available today, there's little that can't be achieved."

Kassandra S. Kania is assistant editor of MD&DI.

Copyright ©1999 Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry

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