At Forefront Medical Technology, a specialty contract manufacturer with a focus in disposable diagnostic, drug infusion, and medical device systems, a number of design spins and tooling iterations are key performance indicators (KPIs) for the design team. The team embraces Lean manufacturing principles not only in terms of design for manufacturability (DFM) best practices, but also in terms of eliminating non-value added activity from its overall process, thereby shortening the product development cycle.
The team also focuses on both business and technical issues in determining the best path to commercialization, and evaluates the end market perspective of new products once the products are in the field as part of its continuous improvement process. Using this approach over the past three years, Forefront's engineering team has introduced nine new products in product development cycles that averaged eight-to-nine months. Materials expertise, in-house rapid prototyping capability, and in-house tooling fabrication capabilities are key factors in achieving this speed.
For example, a recent development project involved a drug infusion dosing pump. In this instance, the development cycle was completed within five months. The customer wanted a full device with a silicone part capable of dispensing the perfect dose. From a technical design perspective the focus was on flow rate and the tube, dimensions of the tube, and the silicone insert in the pump that regulates the device, since these are critical in achieving the ideal flow rate.
The design team started by assessing customer requirements. It then created a Design Development Plan (DDP). A customer specification was developed, and market inputs were collected. The team’s Lean focus on minimizing variability helped to cut time in these processes in several ways. First, there was a database of approved materials that have passed biocompatibility and other critical tests.
Selecting a solvent, additive, and materials that had previously passed the requisite tests cut weeks out of the development process and eliminated potential issues that could arise if a selected material had failed testing. Second, the overall design process and design tools were standardized so internal teams collaborating globally had the same frame of reference.
Once the customer specification was approved, 3D CAD models were developed and analyzed. A design review, which included functional analysis and risk evaluation, was held. After the customer’s team approved the design, prototyping and verification began.
The team used a gated design process to enable tooling development to begin as early in the design process as possible. A combination of in-house rapid prototyping capability and in-house tooling design and fabrication capability helped shorten the product development cycle by another two-to-three months. The tooling design process included a DFM phase, which was followed by development of the mold specification. Following a design review, mold fabrication began. This was followed by a testing and debugging phase, which included a dry run and analysis of product first off the tool. The KPI for this stage is no more than two-to-three tooling iterations.
Production processes underwent a similar development and validation phase with performance qualification to user requirements, operational qualification to functional requirements, installation qualification to design specification and installations.
Since this was an infusion product, testing and compliance stages included comprehensive functional testing. The device was installed in the pump and the dosing volume of a specific volume of saline was monitored for half an hour.
In this particular project, post-development interviews found that the 1.5-meter-long line was tangling. The design was modified to include a spring section, which enabled the line to be shortened and eliminated the tangling issue.
Applying Lean philosophy in the design cycle by eliminating variation through standardized systems and processes, plus vertically integrating rapid prototyping and tooling development cuts time and cost, typically reducing product development time by more than 50%. Ensuring close collaboration between the design team and manufacturing personnel ensures that the design can be commercialized optimally. Validating assumptions made in the product development cycle by measuring production efficiency and end-user ease-of-use ensures that improvement opportunities are rapidly implemented, which improves competitiveness from both cost and market share perspectives.
Daniel Benze is Forefront Medical Technology’s senior vice president, operations & technical.