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Engineering Plays a Big Role at the Mayo Clinic

vial scanner
Creating robust, reliable, and often unique medical equipment and devices falls to a team of designers and engineers at the Mayo Clinic. The lessons they’ve learned can be applied to solving other engineering problems.

Building specialized medical equipment for one of the nation’s premiere health centers presents certain challenges. Steve Nowakowski, principal engineer II at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, will detail some of his experiences and insights at a talk titled, “System Design Trade-offs Beyond the Device” at the Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) on October 31 in Minneapolis, MN. Steve Nowakowski spoke with Design News about the difficulties in designing for the medical profession.

“I am an engineer, part of an engineering division at the Mayo Clinic, and our mission is to build things that can’t be purchased,” explained Nowakowski. “The Mayo Clinic is a really big place—we have a lot of folks on site in Rochester and at our other sites around the system, so we can justify having an engineering area that makes unique systems to support our three shields. They are education, practice, and research,” he explained.

A Box Vial Scanner built by Mayo’s engineering team: The system captures the barcode IDs for all the samples in an 81-position storage box along with a box ID. (Image source: The Mayo Clinic)

Problem Solving

Although the nuts and bolts engineering aspects are crucial, there are other considerations. Some of it is straightforward: “We do products that support operations. We’ve got a lot of samples in storage and we need to keep track of them. How do we make a system that makes that effective, efficient, and accurate?”

Understanding basic science can also be a big part of the engineer’s role. “For example, research: If they want to try something in a new way and you can’t get one of these, we’ll build a system that does that. We make a benchtop version and explore with our physicians the physics involved in all of this. Often, when you get to the physiological side of things, the physics gets really complicated with a lot of different things going on,” said Nowakowski.

The Mayo Clinic has put time and effort into providing the engineers what they need to accomplish their goals. “We build all these different things—we have a whole machine shop and an electrical group and a software group and we build all these things for the clinic in general,” noted Nowakowski.


Because the equipment designed by the Mayo engineering team is often related to patient care, safety is one of the most important factors. “When we are building these things, there are a lot of different needs that come into play when figuring out an architecture,” said Nowakowski. “The first thing is: What is the scenario that this is going to be used in, and what’s the high-level goal of the user? We want to meet needs that maybe they didn’t recognize that they had."

Nowakowski continued, "The aspects of the architecture that come into play are the immediate needs. But of course, safety is an important aspect in things—particularly when related to patient care. And there is a new level of focus on things like security product life cycle. A lot of the products we do, we try to develop in a way that the architecture is decoupled so that it can easily span across things like operating system changes and hardware lifetimes. We probably wouldn’t use a real new technology, because it is likely to change soon. We are a relatively small group and we don’t have time to redo a product because something has become obsolete."

The idea of decoupling is interesting and will be one of the topics in Nowakowski’s ESC talk. “In building these architectures, we want a high level of robustness. To get that robustness, you need a clear understanding of what you are building. But there are no shortcuts to making something that is robust. One thing you really want to do is to contain support costs. You end up building a lot of testing into the system—and the testing needs to be smart testing—which also ends up resulting in a lot of decoupling between the pieces."

He further explained, "You want to make sure that a change in one part doesn’t require a change in the whole system along the way. Each part should do its function really well and robustly, but then should be decoupled from the next piece down the line. The interfaces between the things are relatively simple, even if the job that the things are doing isn’t."

There are challenges that come forth when creating such robust systems. “If you make pieces that are decoupled, sometimes they don’t come together as a whole anymore. This is the job so often in system design: that you work and work at these things and you make it work so well that, despite the fact the pieces are decoupled and the interfaces between them are relatively simple, when you are all done it all looks simple and obvious at the end—like anybody could have walked in and come up with it!” said Nowakowski.

Attendees at ESC Minneapolis can look forward to learning more about engineering and design at the Mayo Clinic during Steve Nowakowski’s talk on October 31.

Senior Editor Kevin Clemens has been writing about energy, automotive, and transportation topics for more than 30 years. He has masters degrees in Materials Engineering and Environmental Education and a doctorate degree in Mechanical Engineering, specializing in aerodynamics. He has set several world land speed records on electric motorcycles that he built in his workshop.

ESC, Embedded Systems ConferenceToday's Insights. Tomorrow's Technologies.
ESC returns to Minneapolis, Oct. 31-Nov. 1, 2018. Steve Nowakowski will speak on October 31 with a talk titled   “System Design Trade-offs Beyond the Device”. With four comprehensive tracks, new technical tutorials, and a host of top engineering talent on stage, you'll get the specialized training you need to create competitive embedded products. Get hands-on in the classroom and speak directly to the engineers and developers who can help you work faster, cheaper, and smarter. Click here to register today!
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