The heart of the matter

New life-saving medical devices are being brought to market in a matter of months. Tom Shelley reports

An advanced consumer medical product has been brought to market in only six months, including tests and approvals. This is all thanks to the management processes and use of software and hardware – mostly in-house – at a small design consultancy. The heart monitor is one of many products from different fields that go through this business, showing how small companies, armed with the right skills and tools, can compete with the majors – and often beat them. The company, Industrial Design Consultancy in Datchet, has 20 employees and the product in question is the MHM 100 personal ECG heart monitor from Medick Healthcare, based in Milton Keynes. This is a small electronic package designed to be worn for up to a day, with three electrode wires with colour coded connectors, to which disposable electrodes are attached by using the sort of poppers normally associated with clothing. “The brief was to turn the available technology into a product suitable for consumers –assumed to be aged 50-plus and technically aware,” says IDC managing director Stephen Knowles. The MHM 100 acts as a small ECG machine. According to Knowles, it uses an algorithm that spots any unusual traces of interest and records them. “In addition, if the user feels any chest pain or shortness of breath, they can press a large ‘event’ button on the underside, upon which it records traces immediately prior to the event being pressed.” Any immediate subsequent traces are also registered. At the end of the day, the unit is connected to a PC that connects to a web site, so the traces can be uploaded, after which they are examined and an expert report sent back within as little as 24 hours. Prices start at £275 for the basic instrument package or £419 including six reports. Main beneficiaries would be anyone who has had a heart attack or who has a family history of heart attacks. “We created the design concept and managed the whole process, including drop tests, trials, obtaining CE marking, samples and all tooling,” adds Knowles. The process begain in February 2006 and the product went to market in August 2006. “It was only possible to do all this in six months because we have all our engineers under one roof,” he says. “It is important to keep industrial styling and engineering together. If design and development is done in a non-intelligent way, you can end up with engineers having to make changes to the design, diluting the intent. You also need to test new ideas as quickly as possible, which is why we keep much of our rapid prototyping inside.” Combined technologies The company uses Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), as well as vacuum casting and CNC machining. “We combine new technologies with traditional pattern making and modelling,” says Knowles. “SLA [stereolithography] is the right method for making small and intricate parts. But, if the design has to be proved out as regards snap fits and hinges, it is not very good so we go to vacuum casting. For an optical part, or finished looking prototypes, we go to CNC machining. For an optical part, we often require the right refractive index, so it is important that we use the right material, and we must also finish it well and polish it.” For design, the company uses Rhino 3D, SolidWorks and Pro/Engineer. For manufacturing design, it uses Delcam’s PowerMill and PowerShape. CAM instructions go straight to the milling machines in the workshop. “It’s an advantage to use the same packages as our clients,” he adds, “most of whom use either SolidWorks or Pro/E. We also have people trained in Unigraphics.” Pointers * Having industrial design, engineering design, rapid prototyping and shot run manufacturing capabilities all under the same roof can save much time * Provided there is the expertise, small companies can undertake product design just as well as large ones and, in many cases, a lot more quickly