David Dobson

Prototyping and Its Relationship to Innovation in Medical Device Design

All products and services are eventually commoditized.  The only way to maintain leadership and profitability in a market is to innovate.  Innovation in and of itself is pointless unless it finds a useful and compelling application with a group of financially capable and willing end users.

This being the case, innovation is the key element in determining whether a company will grow and thrive in the future.  The best way to encourage a stream of meaningful innovation within a business is to create a culture of frequent and rapid prototyping – in both products and services.

As a product development consultant, I’ve watched many companies over the last 25 years struggle to implement some form of innovation agenda.  A few seemed to ‘get it’ early on, while others came to grips with the need to innovate only after the brutal assault of margin eroding competition hit their once protected local market. Nowhere is this more evident than in the medical device development industry.

As I think about this all, a few questions and lessons come to mind.

Why is prototyping the equivalent of a good insurance policy?

  • Prototyping reveals hidden assumptions.  It makes the implicit, explicit.
  • Prototyping decreases risk by exposing and purging bad ideas.
  • Frequent prototyping increases the likelihood that new and interesting options will open up.

What chokes off the benefits of prototyping?

  • Early prototyping should have loosely defined objectives and outcomes.  Being too specific early in the process greatly reduces the opportunity for the unexpected…..and its benefits.

Who are the innovators and who makes the prototypes?

  • Prototyping is essentially a democratic exercise in that it breaks down internal barriers, invites broad participation and provokes an informed critique of ideas, all highly desirable outcomes in the early stages of medical device design.
  • Designers and others with the skill to make the intangible tangible may be the ones who can interpret, sketch, fabricate and/or sculpt a concept, but idea creation and review should be open to a broad spectrum of stakeholders.  It should not be limited to formal ‘product developers’.

How should prototypes be made?

  • Early prototypes shouldn’t be highly finished models created by craftsmen, rather they should be quick mockups, just sufficient to communicate a preliminary concept.
  • Common and easily accessible materials and methods of construction should be used to create mockups.  Materials that are accessible, quickly understood and fashioned by non-technical participants are usually the best choice.

What are the benefits of prototyping?

  • Prototyping gives tangible expression to abstract thought.  It’s a process that naturally fits with the way people think and work through their ideas.
  • Separately prototyping a multitude of small, discrete components of an overall assembly increases the likelihood of overall system level ‘fit’.
  • Prototyping is counterintuitive at first, in that it appears to delay ‘time to market’, but in the end it serves to reduce overall development time.
  • Prototyping improves quality and ‘end user’ acceptance by allowing for the testing of ‘use models’ and customer assumptions.
  • Prototyping gives opportunity to, and helps manage the alignment of product development activities with an organizations overall business strategy.
  • Prototyping builds a company’s brand by ensuring that the final product does in fact deliver on a corporation’s promises.

If prototyping is a prerequisite to innovation, and a culture of innovation is fundamental to future business success, then it makes sense to learn more about how this activity can be introduced into and managed within your company.  If you want to learn more, send me a note and we’ll arrange a time to chat.

Image: StarFish Medical


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