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Designers put appeal into medical devices for home use

By: Gayle S. Putrich

May 28, 2013

WALTHAM, MASS. — Trends in medical-device design are getting back to basics: color and ease of use, experts say.

Devices and gadgetry are increasingly a part of daily life, with people of all ages and backgrounds grabbing tablets or e-readers and keeping their smartphones constantly within reach.

With more and more medical devices being used in the home by patients themselves — who are unlikely to have had any medical training — new devices need to take their cue from tech and become just as aesthetically pleasing and easy to use, says Ximedica's director of consumer health care, Ryan Shafer.

Ximedica, a global medical product development and design firm based in Providence, R.I., sees clients increasingly interested in learning how to create or revamp a device that will be quick to market and integrate seamlessly into a user's life without extensive involvement from medical professionals, Schafer said in a May 15 talk at Plastics in Medical Devices in Waltham.

"More and more, folks are turning to Google before their doctors," he said. "The device market has to adapt to that," he said.

Schafer said one major challenge on the design side of the medical-device market is the regulatory factor — something electronics manufacturers don't have to deal with. While a new high-tech gadget might make it to the consumer market in six months, it can take three to five years to get a medical device through the regulatory process. Materials advances are speeding up some of that extra time he said, with OEMs rethinking existing devices with newer, more consumer friendly materials and "really pushing the limits of how the materials interface with the body."

Color can also make an otherwise intimidating medical device a little more appealing, according to Kydex LLC president Ronn Cort.

Biophilic design and the biology and psychology of color have long played into how hospitals decide to paint walls and upholster furniture, so why not apply the same knowledge to the devices themselves and not just the environment in which they are used?

White, tan and beige long dominated the medical-device market, especially in large devices like MRI machines, in part because of the low cost of resin in those colors at high volumes. "But it's much easier to get custom colors in small production runs now," Cort said during a presentation at PMD.

The Pennsylvania-based thermoplastic manufacturer has added an in-house creative designer to its medical component team "to be voice of the customer on the aesthetics," he said.

Kydex's medical side is learning from aircraft interiors like Virgin Airlines and Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner, which use a combination of LED lighting and thermoplastics to achieve a dramatic, creative design that customers respond to, he said.

"Challenge the supply base," Cort told conference-goers. "A lot of technology is out there in small volumes. A lot of really interesting new color technology has moved into thermoplastics, whether it be heat extrusion or injection molding but that message doesn't necessarily make it to where it belongs, which is out to the industrial designers or into the design phase.

"That is something that needs to be worked into the dialogue early on. Question what really is available. Don't accept the status quo."