In Focus Podcast - S2 006: Finishing the Year Strong and Goal Setting

In Focus Podcast: S2 - 006

Finishing the Year Strong and Goal Setting


Play Episode:

Before the holidays, we sat down with Keith Gausmann, one of the founders of Blur, to talk about finishing the year strong, synthesizing what he learned last year, and goal setting for the new year.

 

A note from the editor: We realized about twenty minutes into recording that we hadn’t done Keith’s intro. With some audio magic, we moved this little sound clip to the beginning. Typically I wouldn’t point this out, but it encapsulates almost too-perfectly one of the themes of this episode: adapt and keep moving forward.

 

Julia

We haven’t actually said who you are yet.

 

Britt

Yeah, we need you to actually introduce yourself. That’s a good point. 

 

Keith

My name is Keith Gausmann, I’m one of the partners here. I help run the business, I help run a project or two, and every now and then I do a little mechanical engineering, which I still like to do. Only every now and then, though. 

 

Britt

Why don’t you tell us also just a little background on Blur and how it got started.

 

Keith

So Blur started in 2015. There were four of us who started this company: myself, Scott Liddle, Nathan Luck and Jeff Rosino. We were all part of the engineering team at a local start-up company here in Raleigh called TearScience, which was sold eventually to J&J in 2018. We all worked there together for somewhere in the eight year range. We started this off as just the four of us, and over the last eight years we’ve grown into over 50 people. 

 

We do pretty much everything you need in the medical device space: industrial design, regulatory, ISO 13485, mechanical, electrical, software, firmware, systems engineering, we have a full prototype lab, machine shop, 3D printers, all that good stuff. And then we have manufacturing as well, we’ve done that for about three years with a separate manufacturing facility that’s about two miles from here. It’s really easy to go back and forth when needed. 

 

We do everything under the sun for a medical device, including writing the design controls when needed, doing all of the V&V testing, prototyping, bread boarding, doing the manufacturing and all the engineering. We can do all or some or even tiny parts of any of that for our customers. It’s kind of whatever the need is, we figure out how to fit in and be a part of our customers team and go from there.

 

Britt

The number one question I get asked is where the name Blur came from.

 

Keith

Well, when we were at TearScience, the other three partners and I, one of the things that we didn’t really like was that it was a little bit siloed. You were pretty much told to stay in your lane, and we as engineers don’t really love that too much because we like to think about other things, and make spreadsheets, and show sales people how they can sell better. 

 

Julia

I’m sure they appreciated that.

 

Keith

Yeah, they don’t always like that. But it really is blur the lines between all the different disciplines. Our philosophy from day one is hire smart people, bring them in, and they’ll do a good job and also have good insight into other things. Normally smart people don’t just focus on their own little area of the world, they think about other things. If you run a business smartly, you’re going to listen to people when they have comments or thoughts or suggestions about how you market yourself, how you sell stuff, what kind of things you’re offering and how you deal with clients, not just the specifics of a product or the engineering. 

 

That’s where Blur comes from, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of doing that. 

 

Britt

You have, and I feel like every client that has asked me about our name and I’ve told them that, they’ve loved that. It’s been a thing that most people like, that we all work together and we aren’t told to stay in our lane. Thank goodness, because I’m always going in other peoples’ lanes.

 

Keith

Yeah, that would not be that fun. Again, this comes directly from experience and it’s not that fun to not be able to think about other things. People want to grow and move and do other things with their lives as well, and it gives them the ability to think about stuff like that.

 

Britt

How do we end the year strong? We try to set expectations with holidays well, but also push hard for our clients. Understand what their goals are for their end of year needs, and then work together as a team to achieve them.

 

Keith

You know, there’s a give and take. You have crazy schedules and a lot of clients want crazy schedules and things that are right on the edge of being doable, and you always want to go for it. I’m of the opinion let’s go for it, but you also have to realize sometimes you’re not going to make it. But if you don’t go for it, you’ll never make it. So, I like the “Think you can and you will,” mentality, but you have to weigh a bunch of stuff. You don’t want to burn people out, which is a fine line. When you increase your activity and you really go at it hard, you learn a ton. 

 

This particular client is a really good example in that we had some pretty crazy deadlines, we were doing some things for the very first time. We busted it to meet those goals, and people put in more than they should have. And this time of year that’s tough because everyone’s got family things and you don’t want to be doing that. But the effort that we put in and the things that we learned and the progress we made on the project were hugely valuable. We would not be where we are today if we wouldn’t have gone through that pain, it would have taken us much longer. But now I feel like we’re entering a new year and we’re in good shape. It’s really all about, you want to gain the value and limit the pain, and that’s a fine line. Especially this time of year. 

 

Britt

I agree with you. We did learn a lot, and we learned a lot in a short amount of time. Sometimes an aggressive goal can help you achieve a lot of learning, which then adds value to future things you’re building or goals you’re setting. 

 

How would you say you keep the team motivated in those type of aggressive goals when things aren’t always going right and you’re trying to manage clients’ expectations but keep the team moving?

 

Keith

I think there are a couple of ways. One is you have to keep it positive and you have to add some perspective. Like saying, “All right, what we did from the beginning of the week to the end of the week was we took a two or three day process and turned it into a five hour process. That’s a big deal.” You have to remind people of that because they don’t see it because they’re in it. You have to be able to take a step back, look at something and see the big picture, which is hard to do when you’re in the thick of it. So that’s one thing. That’s like, hey, all this stuff we did wasn’t not worth it. All this stuff actually was worth it, and look at the improvements we made. It will save us from ever doing this again because of all of these improvements, these things aren’t going to take nearly as much time as they used to.

 

The other thing I think you have to do is be generous. If you ask people to go above and beyond, you have to be willing to do that too. Take your team out to dinner somewhere nice, give them an extra day or two off if they’re working nights and weekends. Those are easy things to do, and they help remind people that it’s a team.

 

Julia

I think that’s something I’ve noticed here. I’ve never been asked by any of my bosses to do something that they wouldn’t do themselves or aren’t already doing and helping with. As an employee, that certainly helps to keep me motivated because I can see they’re pushing just as hard, they’re working right alongside us, they’re really putting in the work as well. 

 

Britt

How do you set up for the new year? We’re ending the year now and then we have the holidays coming and then we’re starting out 2024. How do you typically go into each year in setting goals?

 

Keith

That’s hard. Our business is a little cyclical, we depend on the economy some. You can see a certain amount of work going into the new year. Some of it’s real, some of it you put odds to it: we’re 80% that that’s going to happen, 50% that this is going to happen, and 20% that this is going to happen. Then you try to make plans accordingly to grow and staff as needed. 

 

Again, you don’t want to be crushing people but you also have to be realistic. You can’t go and hire six people on a whim because you have two jobs that may start in March. That’s going to end in disaster. You kind of have to figure out how to win and get those in the door, start them, and then have your people lined up if you need extra people to do that. Maybe it’s diverting resources from other jobs that are winding down, stuff like that. It’s a bit of a moving target, so that’s not easy. 

 

Those are the kinds of things we set goals for: how many people do we want to grow into, what kind of areas of the companies do we want to expand? Manufacturing is a good one, that for us, I think in 2024 will be one of the areas that we try to grow. There may be times that we need engineers and R&D to come over and help out as we adjust and try to get the staffing right. 

 

Britt

That’s the great way of how we do things here. People are willing to pitch in in areas that aren’t necessarily their job role. I think that’s important with a company that’s growing, is to have flexibility and to wear a lot of hats until you understand the current need and something that is going to be needed long term, and to your point staffing accordingly.

 

Keith

I think the other part of that is fixing known problems in our staffing. So there are different holes that cause pain. For instance, in manufacturing the person that can do a multitude of tasks that everyone is pitching in and doing now but it’s not their core competency, and it takes away from their ability to do what they are good at. It would be like having a wide receiver on your football team and asking them to play running back because you don’t have enough of them. You wouldn’t want to do that very often. 

 

It’s recognizing those holes and trying to fill them with the right person, not necessarily just a warm body.

 

Julia

What did you learn this past year?

 

Keith

In this business you’re always relearning the same lessons over and over again because there’s inherent truth in how you run a business, run projects, communicate with people, deal with people who are poor communicators. You constantly, I won’t say you learn that because it’s not brand new, but you constantly relearn that. And how do you take that and translate it into things that different team members can deal with? They’re all different too. They all need their own level of communication.

 

I think understanding that that’s more important than ever.

 

Britt

I think every year we learn even better how to communicate, both externally and internally. You have new projects, and new projects create new obstacles or a miss that you never considered you could miss. It’s not even really a miss at that point, it’s something you now learn from and you try not to miss it again. Those are usually the things I learn throughout the years, and the next year I say, “Okay, how can we ensure that on the next project with an aggressive timeline, we ensure we’re moving fast but we’re hitting all the things.” And that lists continues to grow with each project.

 

Keith

I’d say one of the other things we’re learning, I wouldn’t say we’ve learned it yet but we’re still learning, is how to communicate our open business model on manufacturing costs. We have an “our books are your books” situation. That’s a good thing because as an engineer that’s always what I wanted from my manufacturers, so we just translated that into what we’re doing because I think it’s fair, it’s honest, and it’s helpful for everyone involved. But when you do that, you get questions on everything. So, you have to make sure you’ve communicated correctly, and you also want to do it in a way that people who are looking at your stuff and other stuff that isn’t so open can compare apples to apples. 

 

Part of what we’ve learned is how to communicate that openness better, make sure that everyone is on the same page, that they understand what all the line items mean. There’s a ton of information and a ton of data, which ultimately is a good thing, but it can be overwhelming for people sometimes. So, it’s really learning how to work through that with our clients, our potential clients, and communicate it, be clear about it, and make sure that everyone’s on the same page with the different levers that can be pulled and how we can reduce cost where needed, things like that, and being on top of that. 

 

I think that’s one of the biggest things: don’t just wait for them to ask, just be on top of it. It’s even evolving the open-model forms. I know I’m getting these questions, I’m going to just answer them up front for you so you don’t even have to bother asking. We’ve done the same thing over the years with the R&D proposals thing, making them more open, more detailed, more plans, it always evokes other questions. WE know what those are so we go ahead and answer them up front. You continuously learn that, and it saves effort in the long run.

 

Britt

What are you most excited about coming up in 2024 for Blur?

 

Keith

Honestly, I’m excited about stopping spending money on the new building. That’s gonna feel really good.

 

Julia

Getting settled.

 

Britt

Getting settled into our new spaces.

 

Keith

Yes. Again, we’ve spent a lot of money getting this and manufacturing [ready].

 

Britt

That’s fair. I feel like there has been a lot of growth.

 

Keith

There has been. It’s really nice and it’s gonna be really good, but I’m gonna be really happy to not do that and have, like, we’re good. We’ve got all the software systems we need, we’ve upgraded all the software, outside of a piece of equipment here and there, we’re good for a little while. Let’s just take it and run and focus on the work for a little while as opposed to all the other stuff. Which has been fun and it’s been great, and it’s really nice, this is an amazing upgrade for all of us. It’s going to serve us well for years to come.

 

Britt

I don’t know if our podcast listeners realize we’ve moved into a new building, I don’t know if we’ve said that on the podcast yet. We’ve got two building and increased our square footage, so that’s been a fun last quarter. It has had us busy in great ways and is good for growth in 2024, which is what I’m excited about. I feel like now we have the appropriate spaces going into 2024 to have new business come in and really grow as a company. 

 

Keith

Yeah, I mean just getting settled and now using our new abilities and our new space and let’s see what we can do with it. 

 

Julia

Thanks for chatting. 

 

Keith

Thanks.

 

Britt

Thanks for being here, we really appreciate your time. This has been helpful to hear how you look at the company both from ending the year to starting out the new year.


In Focus Podcast - S2 005: Service Stories

In Focus Podcast: S2 - 005

Service Stories


Play Episode:

How do you stay positive as a service technician and continue to provide the best possible service for your customers? 

Today we’ll hear some stories from the field, both good and not so good, and learn a few lessons along the way. 

 

Julia

Back with us today is Britt and we’re going to be talking a little bit about some of the stories that come with the service industry. 

 

Britt

Yes, today I brought Jonathan Manning. He’s been in the service industry for way longer than I have and thought he could share some of his stories on the road and kind of give some tips on what he’s seen out there and lessons learned. So thanks for being here, Jonathan. 

 

Jonathan

My pleasure. 

 

Britt

Why don’t you tell the listeners how long you have been in service. 

 

Jonathan

One way I learned about service, back in the late 90s, I worked with my best friend on his pit crew, and I worked in NASCAR for a NASCAR team for a couple of years. And then later on in the early 2000s, I was working for a company that made industrial equipment, and I did some service work with them. And around 2011, I moved into medical devices and started working for the service department there, and was a field service engineer till 2018 and now I’ve been working at Blur for several years since 2019. A lot of years. 

 

Britt

Tell me, out of the 50 states, how many states have you been to as part of service? 

 

Jonathan

I was fortunate to see 49 out of 50. I missed out on going to Alaska but I was able to go to 49. 

 

Britt

Wow, 49 out of 50 states. That’s incredible. And how did you decide who got to go to Alaska? 

 

Jonathan

Okay, well there were primarily, when the opportunity to go to Alaska came about, there were primarily two of us that were traveling. If a good trip came up it was rock-paper-scissors, and if a bad trip came up it was rock-paper-scissors. I legitimately lost out on the Alaska trip. So I should have gone with scissors, I guess.

 

Britt

And then what’s the craziest extreme that you’ve gone to from one state to another? Tell us a little bit about that experience. 

 

Jonathan

OK, well, as far as weather-related, one day I was coming back in the morning. I was coming back from somewhere in Florida, and it was during the winter. I got back into the office before lunch and just happened to run into you Britt and you said, “Would it be possible for you to be in Appleton, Wisconsin,” and I say, “Like when?” and you said, “Tomorrow morning.” I remember giving you a crazy look and thinking, “I don’t want to do this.” I thought about it and decided, okay. So I immediately booked a trip to go to Wisconsin. All I had was clothes for Florida because I was just planning on being in Florida that week and ended up in Milwaukee that nigh. It was like single digit temperatures and all I had was short sleeve shirts. So yeah, that was a quick turnaround trip but it was very cold. 

 

Britt

Yeah, that happened a lot. So what John was talking about is when you’re first starting a service department and you’ve got a small team and then you’ve got clients calling in, sometimes you’ve got quick turnarounds that have to happen. And yeah, sometimes you’re having to ask people to fly out of Florida and then go straight to Wisconsin, or in some cases, jump on a plane and get to California and then go right from California to Canada. 

 

I mean, you can’t plan for exactly when service is going to happen, but you can start planning to build your team out to make it the most. less painful process as possible. 

 

Julia

So Jonathan, did you get a coat when you got to Wisconsin? 

 

Jonathan

Nope, I just made the best of it. 

 

Julia

Just toughed it out in your flip flops and shorts. 

 

Jonathan

Well, no flip flops, but yeah, just dress pants and dress shoes and a polo shirt. 

 

Britt

I heard about this one time that you had to use a microwave in a hotel. 

 

Jonathan

Yeah, well, sometimes when you’re planning out these trips for service, you think that you’re gonna be in one place for a certain amount of time and then the rest of the week is already scheduled out. But a lot of times, you have to make changes on the fly. So you pack enough clothes to be somewhere one day and then you add another day’s clothes to it just to make sure. And sometimes those trips end up being extended throughout the whole week. 

 

So one time it’s the afternoon and I’m out of clean shorts and I wanted to wear shorts out that evening to get something. So you do what every everybody does that is taking an extended trip that’s not planned: You wash your clothes in the sink. I just found out the microwave is not a good thing to try to dry clothes in. 

 

Britt

What happens if you put clothes in a microwave? 

 

Jonathan

Well they’ll overheat in places and start smoking. 

 

Britt

Oh, that’s good to know. 

 

Jonathan

Fortunately I didn’t set off the smoke alarm. That would have been really, really bad. Yeah, lost that pair of shorts. 

 

Britt

So not only were you out of clean shorts, you’re down a pair of shorts as well. 

 

What’s the worst experience you’ve had as far as service and then what’s your best experience that you’d say overall from service? 

 

Jonathan

Well I always wanted to make sure I was doing a good job for the customer and wanted to be a good representative of the company and have a good first impression. I wanted to leave with the customer having had a good experience and having a machine that’s working. 

 

I was in Boise, Idaho. I’d left at 0 dark 30 that morning and I remember getting into the office and I just kind of have the shakes because I haven’t eaten anything and I want to get started on this and get it over with. So, I have this machine with probably a 500 to 600 part bill of materials and it’s completely taken apart. All the external housings are off it, all the internal components are out into the bottom to change some CPU components. 

 

The doctor is coming through the office back and forth which is making me nervous because he’s asking me questions like, “Is my machine ever going to work again?” As I’m getting the thing back together, I have a few small screws that I have to put like a thread locker. It comes in a little one ounce bottle with a small paint brush in it and it’s fluorescent orange. Well, this is a brand new office and they have this bright green colored carpet and bright green colored chairs. As I said earlier, I had the shakes, and I opened this brand new bottle of Threadlocker and it’s like everything happened in slow motion: It slipped out of my hand, I tried to catch it with one hand, now it’s twirling. You can see this fluorescent red liquid going all over the chair where the bottle lands on the chair, bounces up, and then lands on the carpet. I immediately went to the office manager and told her what happened. She brought me some rags and then she brought me, of all things, this stuff that you get in automotive stores: It’s brake cleaner. And all you can smell in the office are solvents. At this point I can’t even breathe. I was able to get most of it out of the carpet, but we ended up buying a new office chair for that customer. 

 

Britt

Yeah, I remember that call. It was like, “Britt, can we buy them another chair?” and I said, “Yeah, that’s the right thing to do. So let’s do it” But things happen. Don’t feel too bad about it. I remember you felt really bad about it. And I was like, these things happen. Try not to make mistakes, but they happen. And obviously that was a pretty intense repair. 

 

So probably if it had been a more serviceable device and service had been thought of ahead of time, you probably wouldn’t have had to go that deep into the system and would have had a much faster repair. 

 

Julia

I can’t imagine that purchase request coming through. I’m just imagining at the office someone would be like, why is someone ordering one office chair? For our customer.?

 

Britt

For our customer, not for this office. 

 

Jonathan

Key takeaway for that is always have breakfast. 

 

Britt

Yeah, that’s true.

 

Julia

Most important meal of the day.

 

Britt

And what was your best experience? 

 

Jonathan

Alright, so best experience was the fact that going to so many different cities, you get to experience the cultures and the food. And my counterpart, Paul, in service, we always kept an Excel database of the best restaurants to go to. 

 

Julia

Oh, that’s a good idea. 

 

Jonathan

So I am, I’m a big fan of all types of barbecue. And so I would say a lot of the best experiences, there were many, probably revolved around barbecue. Should I name some of the places? 

 

Britt

Yeah, definitely. 

 

Jonathan

So Leo’s in Oklahoma City, Tyler’s in Amarillo, Texas, and Letha’s down in Mississippi. 

 

Britt

Best barbecue. Good to know. 

 

Julia

I am very impressed that you remembered those just off the top of your head. And you brought your barbecue skills to Blur. You’re like our grill master here. 

 

Jonathan

Well, it is a hobby. I enjoy doing it. 

 

Britt

And then what’s the craziest thing you’ve seen while on the road? 

 

Jonathan

Oh, definitely that’s easy. I was out in Portland, Oregon and I was driving down to Salem. I was on the five and I saw a motorcycle and a guy had a piece of channel iron strapped to the back of it and had a refrigerator, like a dorm-sized refrigerator, and he was transporting that from one place to another on a motorcycle. I thought that took a lot of skills. 

 

Julia

Oh yeah, talk about balance. 

 

Britt

Yeah, that’s some crazy balance. You know. Wow. Yeah, I’m sure you could go on forever. I mean, you’ve got tons of stories there. So, seen a lot of things, heard a lot of things, been to a lot of places. I guess we’ll end with what are some lessons learned, like a few lessons learned if you had to tell our listeners out there that you got from service?

 

Jonathan

I learned that most people will treat you as you treat them. 

 

Another thing is airline etiquette: always be nice to the flight attendants and most of the time they will be nice to you.You always want to give up the best seat if you’re on Southwest to the mom that is nervous about having her kids with them when she gets on the plane late. Things like that. And I did learn that the middle seat won’t actually kill you. 

 

Probably the most important thing though is you always wanna check the mattresses when you’re in strange hotels. 

 

Julia

Have you found anything? 

 

Jonathan

Well, I was out in Washington state and it was the only encounter I ever had where I actually saw a real live bed bug. I disappeared from that hotel pretty quick. 

 

Britt

And then what about lessons learned from, you know, being out in the field performing service? If you were mentoring someone right now, who’s new to service and they’re about to go out on their very first service call, what would you tell them when they get to that office their best thing to think about is? 

 

Jonathan

Tell them that everything doesn’t go as planned. Be confident in your support group back home. Have numbers of people that have expertise in things that you’re not an expert on, and realize that the worst thing that can happen is you can’t repair the machine and you might get another stab at it. 

 

Julia

Yeah, I think being confident in your support team is a huge one. The worst thing that can happen in that scenario is you might not be able to fix the problem right there when you’re there, but that’s why you have your support team and the experts that you can rely on and call up. 

 

Britt

Yeah, well, this has been great, Jonathan. I really appreciate you joining us today and hearing all your stories and lessons that you’ve been able to share with the listeners. 


In Focus Podcast - S2 004: Test Fixtures for Medical Devices

In Focus Podcast: S2 - 004

Test Fixtures for Medical Devices


Play Episode:

What are test fixtures and why are they useful in product development? 

When in the product development cycle should you consider using test fixtures? 

We sat down with Nathan, a test fixture engineer at Blur, to understand when test fixtures are needed and why they’re valuable. 

 

Julia

Thanks for joining us today, Nathan. Can you describe what you do here at Blur? 

 

Nathan

I am our test engineer here at Blur. So I design and develop test fixtures, manufacturing fixtures, assembly fixtures, things like that. I’m also involved with the design verification and validation to make sure that our products are functional and safe before we send them to clinical or to the open market or wherever they may go. And that about sums it up in a nutshell. 

 

Julia

How long have you been in this field of test fixtures and creating test fixtures, and how did you determine that that’s what you wanted to do as a career? 

 

Nathan

So, In 2009, when I was 15, I got a job at a third party test lab in Pennsylvania, where I used to live. I started there sort of washing windows, scrubbing carpets, and not so fun things like that. But I was still in high school, so it was okay. They were a very large aerospace test facility, and their market was that they were third party, so they don’t have any weight in whether the results pass or fail which is always what you need at the end of the day to get a system passed for use by the FAA or different things like that. So I’d worked there for a while, I knew the background of where I worked. 

 

And when I went to college, I got a degree in mechanical engineering. When I got out of college, I was offered a position as a project manager at that business and that would have been in 2016. So I started there and I worked in non-metallics, so composites, plastics, things like that. 

 

And that’s where I really got into this because, at the time when I got into it, the use of composites and plastics for structural components in the aerospace industry was still fairly new. So it was a new department that we had opened up at the place that I worked and everything there was, at that time, a lot of stuff that they hadn’t done before. So that’s where a lot of the designing new tests and new fixtures and things like that came in because they had 40 or 50 years experience testing metals, but it’s a totally different animal once you get into, in particular, the composites, the carbon fibers, those are very complex tests. So that’s where I got started on it. I did that for five or six years before I came here and now I’ve sort of been doing a similar thing since I got to Blur. 

 

Britt

Yeah, that’s great. I’ve worked a lot with Nathan, specifically in the manufacturing area with fixtures and yeah, he can come up with pretty much anything. So I’ve definitely had a lot of great experiences with Nathan. 

 

For our listeners out there though, it would be good to kind of hear your process a little bit. First thing, how do you know when a fixture is needed? Like how does our client know they should be actually reaching out to you for a fixture? 

 

Nathan

That can vary. Sometimes we are told by the operators who are working with a specific device, to either assemble it or test it, “Hey, this is fairly complicated, it’s labor intensive, it’s not really working out well for us.” So really it’s whenever you make an observation that something could be improved by, you know, minor automation or less human involvement. Whenever you notice things like that, that’s really a good time to consider that it might be a good idea to make a test fixture and assembly fixture, depending on where you’re at in the project. 

 

Unfortunately, there’s not a direct answer for that. There’s no right answer. It’s really whenever someone observes that something could be improved, that’s the appropriate time to consider investing the time in making something like that. 

 

It depends on how complex the system that the fixture that you’re considering making is also. If it’s minor, like an alignment jig or a holding jig or something like that, we can come up with something like that typically within a day. It’s not very labor intensive, it doesn’t cost a lot to do something like that. But, if we’re getting more into an automation type thing, that can obviously take a little more time and it’s a little bit bigger of an investment. 

 

So it’s all about weighing the investment that you’re putting in now to develop some sort of fixture versus, you know, what it would take for someone just to do it. If it’s a, if it’s a small builder, if it’s a minor thing versus a large complex system that is going to take more time and money to come up with. 

 

Britt

And what’s your process for coming up with a fixture? Are you typically just thinking of it from the user’s perspective and then working through how to make it easier or like what are your steps? Do you draw it out first or do you just start pulling materials and start playing around with things? 

 

Nathan

The first step for me is I like to see what the problem is. So if we’re working on something in manufacturing and we’re having trouble with assembly, we’re having trouble holding it apart or whatever, I like to watch the process to visually see, okay, this is what they’re trying to do and this is potentially how we could improve it. 

 

Outside of that, it’s nice here because we have all the materials and resources to rapidly prototype a lot of things. So it’s easy to come up with a simple design to sketch it out, to get it drawn up in a 3D modeling system like SOLIDWORKS. From there we can cut some simple parts out of plastic on the laser and assemble a simple mock jig that way, or we can 3D print something if we think that’s more appropriate. 

 

Really it’s looking at the process, trying to see what the problem is, coming up with a quick solution to it, and prototyping it to get it in the hands of the people who are using it to make sure that that they see this as a benefit that it’s actually working how they think it will. And from there, after we have that initial prototype, it can be improved to something more robust and more permanent. The first step in the process is to come up with a simple design just to make sure that we’re headed in the right direction and then we can, I don’t want to say complicate it, but we can make it better from there. 

 

Britt

That makes sense. And it sounds like for the most part, a lot of your fixtures are related to making things more automated or easier for the user. Do you also see a lot of need for fixtures when it comes to electrical testing or in process testing to prevent end of line failures? Where do you see the most fixtures coming out of? 

 

Nathan

A lot of fixtures that we’re making, at least since I’ve been here related to testing, are life-cycle type things. For most of our design verification campaigns, there’s portions where you want to cycle certain components of the device for the expected life. So, we may unplug and plug something in up to thousands of times to make sure that it’s going to survive what we expect it to see when it’s in service. And obviously, it’s easy to have someone sit there and unplug and plug in a cable 10,000 times, but for things like that, there comes a point where it’s no longer cost effective to pay someone hourly to do that as opposed to investing the time upfront to come up with an automated system for it. 

 

We have numerous fixtures here that run on linear actuators, things like that, to make repetitive motion automated so that we don’t have to have someone sitting there doing it. And it’s twofold because it saves time, because these are kind of set and forget type things where you set it up, you tell it to go and you check on it when the test is done, once the fixture’s been validated and all that, but it also gets you a more repetitive process where you sort of taking the human error out of the test that you’re doing because you know that it’s doing exactly what it was designed to do every time without fail. So you’re eliminating a variable essentially, depending on what kind of test you’re doing. 

 

Britt

Yeah, and you’re saving somebody a lot of time from having to do that a thousand times. 

 

Nathan

A lot of times that somebody is me. So it’s nice. That’s why I save myself some time there. 

 

Britt

What’s your, a fixture that you’re most proud of? 

 

Nathan

One of the ones that I did earlier in my time here, it’s basically a cyclic fatigue fixture that takes a round medical device and curls it into a G shape and then extends it back to a straight line. It cycles it that way, you know, a couple thousand times. And then that fixture is also able to take the sensor in a straight line and twist it so it’s like a torsional type test. That one was one of the more complicated ones that I worked on here. So once we got it together, it worked out pretty good. I’m fairly happy with that one. 

 

Another one that we get a lot more use out of is another cyclic fatigue type fixture that applies a shear stress to a bond line of one of our devices to simulate the stresses that it might see in use. That one involved some usability type testing where we had people wear the device and said, okay, do jumping jacks, do pushups, sit up, stand down and tried to evaluate what kind of stress was actually on that bond line when we were using it. And then taking that and sort of getting a fixture to emulate the stresses that the device sees during actual wear. So that one, the mechanical side of that one isn’t as complicated, but the setup, it’s definitely a lot easier to tie it into the real world use of the device. So that’s another one that I’m fairly happy with. 

 

Britt

That’s great. 

 

Julia

Wow, those are cool. 

 

Britt

Yeah, very cool. I guess my last question I have is just what would you recommend for our clients in that test world or fixture world for them to start thinking of sooner rather than later in their process?

 

Nathan

I think the earlier that we get started on these, they’re almost like side projects compared to the big scheme of the devices we’re making, but the earlier we can recognize that we need them and we can get started on the development of them, that gives us more time to do some iterations and get a better functioning system. As opposed to, you know, sort of getting it at the last minute and saying, “We need this now, this has to go out, we have to do something quick,” which we’re more than capable of doing, but the more time you have, the cleaner the systems can be, the better they can work. 

 

I think one of the challenges is that a lot of times with assembly fixtures, we don’t realize we need them until we’re in the assembly process. And there’s two sides of that: On the R&D side, the assembly is typically a little simpler because we’re doing small volumes, but once it gets to the manufacturing side and we’re in more of a production volume, we start to recognize that this could be made, this could be improved, we can make this a little easier. So if we can get it earlier on, it gives us more time to develop it. And on the testing side, it’s the same sort of deal where a lot of times we’re getting into design verification and it’s sort of a rush and we realize that we need this. And again, we’re always capable of getting a quick solution like that, but the more time we have, the better of a system we can come up with. 

 

Britt

Yeah, that’s great. I really appreciate you being here. 

 

I think that we can gain a lot from your knowledge. I’ve definitely had to pull Nathan several times to help with assembly for sure in the manufacturing process. The one great thing is having him on site and being able to, as he said, rapidly create a prototype for us to try out and then get into manufacturing quickly and without any downtime. 

 

I’m glad you’re here today to help educate our clients. 


In Focus Podcast - S2 003: What Are You Thankful For?

In Focus Podcast: S2 - 003

What Are You Thankful For?


Play Episode:

We’ve taken a few minutes to interview the team members at Blur asking the question, what are you thankful for?

Some answers are silly, some are serious, but all are heartfelt. I hope that as you listen to this, it spurs you to think about your own life and recognize the good in this year. 

 

  • This year I’m thankful that me and my family have stayed healthy. 
  • I’m just thankful for the year. It’s gone by so fast. I have a brand new great granddaughter, so that makes two. So I’m thankful for that. Just thankful for that we got all moved into the new facility. Shop looks great and we’re all set and ready to go. 
  • Grateful to work with great people at a great place and free food. 
  • I’m thankful for the coffee maker. 
  • I’m thankful for starting a new job at a super supportive company. 
  • I’m thankful for my family, my friends, my health, and all this natural light that we get at our new office. 
  • I’m thankful for my family and that we’re almost done with our house renovations. And I’m thankful for your dog Lulu. 
  • I’m thankful that my grandma is recovering from her stroke. 
  • I am thankful for the new building that we just remodeled and that’s coming along great. And for my dog, Coast. And just friends and family in general. 
  • I’m thankful for 80’s hair metal and the better world it has given us to the use of spandex. 
  • I’m thankful to work with a bunch of really passionate nerds who are actually really happy to do what they’re doing and help out. 
  • I’m thankful for my new job. 
  • I’m thankful for a group of co-workers who I enjoy spending time with. 
  • So I’m thankful for all the blessings that I have, the countless blessings, including my wife and my soon to be one year old kid. 
  • I’m thankful for a really good writing pen. 
  • I’m thankful for office dogs. 

 

As a company, we have a lot to give thanks for. 

 

We’re thankful for our employees who tackle complex problems head-on and are never afraid of a challenge. Without them, there would be no Blur. 

 

We’re thankful for the Blur team members we’ve gained this year who bring fresh insights and ideas into the workplace. 

 

We’re thankful for moving into new R&D and manufacturing buildings that will give us the space to grow. 

 

Lastly, we’re thankful for each and every one of our clients that trust us to help them along their journey of product development. Because of their belief in our team, we’ve gotten to develop some truly exceptional medical devices that are changing and saving lives. 

 

From everyone at Blur, a heartfelt Happy Thanksgiving.


In Focus Podcast - S2 002: Interning at Blur

In Focus Podcast: S2 - 002

Interning at Blur


Play Episode:

Ever wondered what it’s like to intern at Blur? 

Curious what types of projects our interns get to work on? 

Today we’re talking with Anna, an electrical engineering intern, about her experience this summer and the things she learned along the way. 

 

Julia

Anna, thanks so much for coming on the podcast today. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? What’s your role here at Blur? 

 

Anna

I’m a grad student at NC State studying electrical engineering. And I was an intern this summer at Blur and decided to stay on part-time to just help out wherever it was needed. 

 

Julia

So how did you hear about Blur? 

 

Anna

So during my internship search in the spring of last year, I was just kind of looking on all the basic job sites, looking on Indeed or LinkedIn, and then I actually looked on EPAC, which is NC State’s career development website. I saw a posting for Blur, and then did a little bit of research and thought it sounded like a cool company, so I applied after that. 

 

Julia

What was the thing about Blur that stood out to you that made you decide out of all the internships you had seen or looked at or job postings, this is the one you wanted to go to. 

 

Anna

Yeah. So the job description was probably the first thing that led me to Blur because I was like, this sounds like it’s right up my alley because it was relevant to medical devices, which I’ve always been curious about and wanted to work in that industry. But then just doing more research about the company, I kind of found some old YouTube videos that have been posted, introducing Blur and what they do and some of their projects. And I thought they all sounded really interesting. So I just applied and here we are. 

 

Julia

What areas did you get to work on this summer in your internship? What areas are you working in now? And was there anything that was sort of surprising to you about that or areas you got to work in that you weren’t expecting to? 

 

Anna

Fortunately I was able to work in a lot of different areas, specifically the research and development area, kind of the upstairs building, but I got to work a lot on one specific project. So it was kind of surprising how much I got to follow that project. I got to see all the different updates and revisions and all of the testing that went into doing everything. And that was unexpected, but exciting.

 

Julia

That’s cool that you were able to follow a project from the beginning and see its completion through your summer here at Blur. 

 

Anna

Yeah, it definitely gave me a newfound appreciation for what goes into a medical device, just knowing like how many like hours of work go into even something that seems simple like a software update or a design change and all the testing and of course all the documentation that accompanies it, but have a newfound appreciation for how much work goes into it. 

 

Julia

So you said you interned through the summer and then you decided to stay on throughout the school year sort of part-time. What made you decide that you wanted to continue working and interning here? 

 

Anna

I think the biggest thing was probably my involvement in that one particular project, just knowing it was going to be continued and knowing that I had learned a lot about it and felt comfortable with the project to be able to help out more of a part-time role during the semester. But also, I just really liked my time here and the community was great. So I felt very welcome and it was easy to ask to stay on part-time. They were very excited to have me, which was great. 

 

Julia

We’re always excited to have interns stay!

 

Julia

Do you feel like your time here this summer, the things you’ve learned, have impacted the way you view your education or even like what you want to do after school? 

 

Anna

I would say yes, just because I’ve learned a lot that I didn’t necessarily know went into medical device development and design. I think part of that is because my sophomore year, when you’re really supposed to do all the hands-on stuff, was online due to COVID, unfortunately. So I think this filled like a big gap that I had in terms of missing hands-on experience. Now I definitely know this is something I want to do afterwards, and product development specifically for medical devices seems like it’s right up my alley. 

 

Julia

Cool. That’s awesome that you got to fill that gap here. 

 

Anna

Yeah, it was unexpected, but I’m glad that it happened. 

 

Julia

Yeah, good. So what advice would you have for other people in school looking to get into the medical device field or wondering like, am I going to like this? Am I not going to like this? What advice do you have for someone like that who maybe is looking for an internship? 

 

Anna

Kind of just looking at the job descriptions, they’re all probably going to be similar. You know, the type of job you’re applying for, the job description, they’re going to ask you to do the same thing. So I think just doing a little bit of extra research about the company itself to know if it’s a good fit for you was really what made the difference between my other internships and Blur. And also, you know, I’d always thought I wanted to work at a really big company. And so my internship after junior year, that’s what I did. I worked at a really big company and, you know, I loved all the people and the work, but it was just a little too big. It didn’t feel as personal or have that community that I was looking for. So I think that’s what influenced my decision to look at a little bit of a, you know, more medium sized, smaller company like Blur. 

 

Julia

And what was your favorite part of your internship? Your ongoing internship, I guess.

 

Anna

Aside from the festivities, the Blurthday Party happened my first week of the summer and then the Blurbecue happened the last week with the cornhole tournament. So aside from the obvious festivities, I think it was just getting to work with so many experienced engineers and just their willingness to answer questions. I had a lot of questions, so that was great that they were so willing to answer and just let me be independent and kind of do what needed to be done. And then if I had questions again, just ask them. They’ll help me out. 

 

Julia

Yeah, that is something that we’ve talked about quite a bit on the podcast, or at least I have brought up several times, is the freedom to ask questions and to learn while you’re here. No one’s gonna, like, ostracize you for not knowing something. And I think that’s just advice for people maybe getting into internships for the first time or coming right out of school. You can feel like you need to know everything and that if you ask a question, then people are going to look down on you or think you’re not as much of an expert or why didn’t you learn this in school, but it’s more of a testament to your character and your willingness to learn if you do open up and ask those questions. I find around here people are super respectful and they’re not going to bash you, but they’ll take the time to educate you. 

 

Anna

That was one of my bigger concerns coming in. I was like, because I did graduate with biomedical engineering in the spring before I started, and I kind of had that concern of, well I do have a degree now, even though I’m an intern I felt that I should maybe know a little bit more than I did. Within my first week, people would just explain stuff, say like, it’s okay if you don’t know how to do this, which just made it feel so much better asking questions. 


In Focus Podcast - S2 001: Human Factors and Design

In Focus Podcast: S2 - 001

Human Factors and Design


Play Episode:

How do you design for different levels of technical expertise in a medical device?

When should you translate design ideas from paper into physical models?

Today we’re sitting down with Damein, an industrial designer, to discuss his experience designing medical devices and tips for creating a successful product.

 

Damein

I’m an industrial designer and usability expert here at Blur. I help to bring the voice of the user, their needs and constraints, into a conversation early on so that when we’re designing a product it doesn’t get designed only from the inside out but also from the outside in.

 

Julia

Have you ever seen a product where that happens, where they don’t start with the user needs and sort of what were the ramifications of that?

 

Damein

We’ve all seen those things, like when you look at something and think, “This is going to be really nice.” For instance: this microphone. We were just trying to plug the cord into it but the cord plugged into it is sort of cumbersome and difficult to access. That could have been a consideration made early in the process, thinking how does this thing plug in, how does it go together, and how is that experience going to be interpreted by the user? Are they going to get frustrated and just get a better microphone, or are they going to press through that problem and make it work? 

 

We always want to when we’re designing something, especially early in the process, ask who’s going to be using this thing? How can we champion that user throughout the process so that every step we take and every direction we go we’re always looking back and asking how it’s going to be used? That informs a lot of decisions that we have to make in terms of what shape it needs to be, can a person hold it, can a person operate it, can you reach the buttons, do you have to go back five screens to get back to where you need to be? Those sorts of considerations are really important and you can’t really have those if you’re zoomed in so close to a problem. It’s important to always look back up and ask, “Does this matter to the person who is going to be using the product?”

 

That’s something that we try to do at Blur and infuse into our design process, having that design consideration for the person who is going to be using the product and not getting too caught up in the technical details and feasibility too early on. Before asking, “Does this work [technically], how are we going to do it?” we make sure first that it will work for the person we’re designing it for.

 

Britt

And what kinds of questions do you start out with our clients? High level versus detailed to get to what you said, even with plugging in the microphone, what questions could they have asked or thought of to mitigate that?

 

Damein

When we’re talking to a potential client who has a really great idea, or a technology that they’ve developed, they often want help getting it off the ground. We start with stuff that is super high-level: Tell me about who is going to be using it and what does it do? What are we actually trying to achieve and what’s the goal for the product, and then what’s the goal for the user? Sometimes the user is a different consideration than the person that the product is being used on. Especially in a medical device space, where you have maybe a clinician or nurse or surgical assistant using the device on a patient. The experience for the surgical assistant or the clinician is going to be a lot different than the patient’s experience. Making sure that they have considerations on both sides of the equation [is important]. 

 

When I start, I start with who is using the product? Is that person, the primary user, also the patient or secondary user? How does that experience go? Sometimes you’ll have a product that the primary user is the patient, but the secondary user would be the clinician who sets it up, hands it to them, and then performs whatever function they need to perform. 

 

I start with those two profiles and try to understand approaching it with that mindset, and then you look at the workflow. How is that workflow going to go? Do you need to unbox it? Does it need to be paired to something? Are there speakers and buttons? Does it need to be shrouded so it stays sealed and stays clean and sterile throughout the use case? Those are all really important things that we need to know upfront because if you have to put a drape over top of a product, and you also need to have buttons or an interface underneath of that drape, we’re wearing two pairs of gloves, we have a drape, and now we’re trying to push a button underneath of that drape. So, what kind of button is that going to be? It’s probably not going to be a touchscreen, it’s probably not going to be one of those capacitive microwave buttons. It’s going to need to be something relatively chunky that gives good feedback and has a tactile feel so that when you’re pressing it, it’s deliberate, intentional and thoughtful. 

 

Julia

As you’re designing products for multiple different users, there’s also different levels of technical expertise that you have to weave into these products. How do you balance that? Say you have a user that really doesn’t have much technical expertise on this very technical thing, even potentially life-saving medical devices. I think about an epipen, someone has to look at that and know how to use it right away because there is very little room for error. If there is an error, that’s potentially costing someone their life. How do you balance that as you’re thinking about these questions in the beginning of a design?

 

Damein

Not everyone has the ability to look at a product and understand how it functions right off the bat. What you want to do is make sure that it’s designed in a way that is intuitive in that direction. If it’s an epipen, one side is always going to be pointy and one side is always going to be blunt, so that makes a lot of sense for [telling a user] “This Side Down.” If you have a basic understanding like me, who’s never used an epipen before, in an emergency I could pick up that device and say, “All right, I know I have to put what’s inside this syringe into this person, so I’m going to stick them with the pointy end.” That helps you to understand how that product functions. Whereas, if it were a rectangular shape or any other sort of shape, it might [spur questions]. Do I do it this way or do I do it that way? Is this like a glowstick, am I supposed to crack it? How does this work?

 

Designing the form of something can really help inform how a user is going to perceive it and then how a user is going to end up using it. Everyone is going to tackle it for the first time without looking at an IFU. Even though we don’t condone that and we say they should read it, sometimes they don’t. You want to make a product that is going to be safe and effective even if there is an uninformed user. 

 

Britt

In manufacturing and service, I can think of a lot of things that if I could tell someone what I learned from, I would tell them these mistakes and what I did to prevent that in the future.

 

Damein

Sure, one thing I would say you want to steer clear of is making assumptions. I know that’s sort of a baseline thing, but especially making assumptions about how someone is going to intuitively use a product. We talked about intuitive use cases where you have a product that looks like it does a function, so form is following function in that case. To me, the designer, the client who had the idea might have had preconceived notions about how if we hand it to a third party, someone who has never seen the device before, how they’re going to use the device. 

 

We can get the whole way down the process, have a great thing, say, “Look how cool this is! Look how well it works!” and then hand it to someone who’s never seen it before and they hold it upside down. 

 

Britt

I’ve seen you at Blur give [prototypes] to several different people at the office and say, “Use this,” and they do.

 

Damein

And that is something I really value about being at Blur is that our team operates in a way that they can take a product or project and run with it. You can take this to someone else who has literally never seen this technology before and say, “Hey, look at this cool thing we’re working on. Can you just hold this?” You’ll learn so much, and it’s about that physical interaction. 

 

You can send out Google surveys, multiple choice questions, but there is so much in the intonation of having a conversation with somebody, watching them hold the product or watching them try to set up the device that is really huge. They’re making a mistake, you’re just watching, and they don’t even know they’re making a mistake. I can then go back to the drawing board and ask questions. Maybe it’s less comfortable to wear it that way, or maybe it doesn’t fit together like that, and make it in a way that it won’t even work [if they put it together incorrectly], so it’s not an option and it’s not a problem.

 

Julia

How do you elicit the correct emotion from someone? Say you’re using a product and you talked about red as being this very alarming color, this goes maybe more into the UX or UI design, but just being very aware of not just the physical use of something but also how is the person feeling as they’re going through this process? If someone’s using an epipen they’re probably going to be pretty anxious, so it needs to be fairly foolproof in the way that they use it. How do you incorporate that into your design as well?

 

Damein

In medical devices it’s an interesting issue because you’re dealing with high stakes situations, and oftentimes life-threatening situations, and adrenaline can be pumping and it’s really sort of an intense time, even for trained professionals. On some of the devices that we’re developing, seconds can matter. Getting an infusion on time, moving a millimeter to the right and getting the wrong artery, these are things that are really important. 

 

[You have to be] cutting a balance between alarming someone and telling them something bad is happening versus alarm fatigue, which is a real thing in the industry where if you’re in an OR, there is constantly something beeping at you. There is constantly something trying to get your attention and flag you down, so you have to be sensitive to that environment and alarm on things that are actually alarms. Not just low batteries. Really sort of playing with that threshold of what is actually an emergency and what is something you can deal with after the real emergency is over? 

 

When you think about that, you think about, “Do we need to use a red light here? Or would an orange do?” There’s also things you have to do with some regulations, like in 60601 testing you need to be sensitive to what their alert system is and what can and can’t be in that bucket. There’s a lot of different things you have to consider when you’re thinking about how to grab someone’s attention, and what level of that attention you need to grab depending on the class of the device, use case, and the scenarios you’re in. 

 

Julia

Can you walk us through your ideal timing and timeline for the start of a design project all the way through the end?

 

Damein

Well, the start is not always the start and the end never ends. Ideally, you would get a cross functional team together: someone who is in the design space and represents the user, someone who is a technical lead, whether that’s a mechanical, electrical, or software engineer depending on what the project’s needs are going to be, and you get the client in the room to lay out the problem you’re trying to solve. What are our goals? What does success look like? We put together a road map of how we would like the project to go. It almost never goes how we want it to go, but we can get close. 

 

We get that cross functional leadership team together, which is really important because I might not always throw out ideas that are perfectly feasible. If we have someone else in the room to say it might not work, or they have an idea for a different type of technology to supplement what we need to do, it’s important to have that organic transfer of ideas and information. 

 

After we understand our baseline roadmap, the design team will take that and start throwing stuff at the wall. We’ll have a brainstorming session and start understanding the strengths that we have, the goals we have, and proposing different ideas of how to get there: different technologies, different forms, different things to solve the problems we want to solve. 

 

We can really explore a large swath of those ideas pretty quickly with fast and dirty CAD models, sketches, renderings, any tool in our tool belt, sculpting foam, and making volumetric studies. We refine it down and I like to see at least five good ideas, usually it’s three, but if we can get five good ideas that go from our most conservative concept that just absolutely solves the problem without taking too much risk all the way to the pie in the sky, something that will shake up the industry or change peoples’ lives.That sort of spectrum is always nice because when we present that to the stakeholders, they can pick the parts they like from each one. They can mitigate the risk with the conservative features and maybe up the perceived value with some of these more interesting ideas on the other end of the spectrum.

 

Then we go back and explode out what we have. We take the ideas we have, what they wanted, and we put them into new concepts. We push those boundaries to get past the low-hanging fruit, the initial exploration, and into something that is really digging deep and grabbing those good ideas right at the top of the tree. You have to climb high for them, but once we get there we can show three solid directions and the client can pick the one they like the best. 

 

Then we can move into mechanical design and understand all of the intricacies of how we’re going to design this for manufacture, how we’re going to design it for assembly and get Britt’s team involved. [They’ll tell us] how exactly to set up an assembly line, how many times do we have to flip this thing over to make it work? We can really find some efficiencies in that space, but design sort of tapers off there, where the engineering starts to grow. We have this symbiotic relationship where we don’t really hand it off, but it sort of flows. One process leads into another, so we go from design to engineering to usability studies and then manufacturing. 

 

Throughout that whole process, there’s designers involved making sure that the vision is maintained, we’re always pushing boundaries and never just accepting the status quo, thinking of new ways to do things and implementing new techniques to achieve the problems we want to achieve. Otherwise, you might get stuck with “good enough” when it could have been a lot better. We never want to be in the position where we’re just settling.

 

Julia

How do you differentiate between something that is a good idea and something that is a great idea? Do you have questions you ask? I know that’s dependent on the goal of the client, but how do you keep that in mind as you’re having this very exploratory phase at the beginning?

 

Damein

Sometimes great ideas turn out to be bad ones, and sometimes what you think won’t be good ideas are actually pretty good. 

 

That’s sort of a non-answer, but it’s kind of a gut feeling when you’re designing something. It’s like, you start sketching something, you start doing a CAD project to understand how things will go together and sometimes something will click. You can feel it in your gut that that is a good direction, and you can feel that flow when you start pushing even further in that direction, and you can come up with something that is, hopefully, really ground-breaking on the other side of that effort. 

 

Sometimes you’re doing it and you think, this is okay, but I don’t know. You never want to kill something too early because down the line you might want to pull it back up. In fact, right now on a project we’re working on, we’re struggling with how to attach this cartridge to the side of this piece of equipment. We had been doing it one way, but we had to change a couple of things about how they went together. We remembered a couple of weeks ago we had this idea where we would hinge from the bottom. Can we resurrect that? At the time it didn’t make sense, but now that we’ve had these adjustments in the design and some constraints around the engineering, it makes a lot more sense. We can revive that old idea, dig up those prototypes out of the bins on the shelf and now we don’t have to retread that and start from scratch. We have a bit of a leg up. You never really know, sometimes they come back.

 

Julia

Back to haunt you. 

 

Damein

Or save you!

 

Julia

We’ve talked a lot about this exploratory phase and getting a lot of these ideas down on paper. How do you move from paper to where you’re actually getting user feedback?

 

Damein

Absolutely. That’s a really critical part of the process and specifically our process here at Blur. You want to get designs out of your head and into your hands as quickly as you can. That route from A to B needs to be a straight line, if at all possible. So, when you have an idea you might sketch it or do a quick CAD model. Basically, in the ideation phase we don’t restrict designers to make them just do sketches, or just do CAD work, or just do renderings. We want to get any and all visual physical communications out, whether that’s a piece of foam that’s sculpted into a shape, or a 3D printed version of CAD model. It’s really important to get those things into three dimensions so we can actually hand it to that end user, to that stakeholder, and say this is what we’re thinking. If a picture’s worth a thousand words, a model’s worth a million. 

 

It’s wild, you can have something on a piece of paper but once you hold it in your hand everything becomes so much more clear. You really understand, oh, it looked this big on paper but when you hold it do you really want this thing to run for 24 hours straight? It’s pretty big. Those sorts of constraints become very relevant and very obvious when you have them in three dimensions. 

 

Really for our process, we try to get things off the page and into your hands as soon as we can because you can make so many more informed decisions about what you’re actually building that way.

 

Julia

What’s one of your favorite projects that you’ve worked on here at Blur?

 

Damein

One of the more rewarding projects I’ve gotten to work on during my time here at Blur was a surgical robot that really helped pave the way for a lot of the surgical robotic equipment that is being developed now. What was so interesting about it is there are so many different users, and there are so many different constraints around each user. You have a surgeon, you have a surgical assistant, you have a patient, and you have a scrub nurse, and they all interact with this device in different ways at different times for different reasons. 

 

The device has three main components: a central unit that drives the instruments, an endoscope, which is a camera on the end of a snakey tube, and an insertion tube or the part that goes into the patient. Our main focus was the central unit and how that interfaces with the endoscope and the insertion tube for the instruments and endoscope. You have three challenging mechanical interfaces that have to remain sterile, that have to be intuitive and usable in almost a blind way because you can’t see what you’re doing when it’s in position, and it’s used by those three users. They all have different needs. On top of that, the whole thing is draped in plastic. So, you have to be able to feel what you’re doing, see what you’re doing, and have the human factors in a way that is always intuitive and easy to access. 

 

That was a really challenging project, but I think we were able to come up with some really innovative, elegant, and thoughtful solutions for the way that we approached it and how we got those challenges solved for the client. 

 

Julia

Do you think there’s anything you learned from that project or solutions you came up with that you find yourself coming back to for other projects? Are there any lessons you learned that you can implement into your work going forward?

 

Damein

I think some of the biggest learnings I gained from working on that project is understanding the importance of working in that cross-functional team. It wasn’t really specifically related to the design, but because it was such a big project there were lots of engineers and designers working on it. We all had to work in a very small space virtually: we’re working on the same CAD models, adjusting the same dimensions. We really had to mind-meld to drive to where we want to be as far as the solution we’re looking for. It really drove home for me our workflow and having these teams work as one consciousness almost, this hive-mind of engineering to achieve a goal. We learned a lot about what works well and doesn’t work well in those challenging, intricate projects that require a lot of effort but a lot of dexterity.

 

I really love working here, honestly. We have such an amazing team of talented engineers and designers and people working together that it makes it easy to really dig into these hard problems. A challenging project doesn’t feel so daunting when you’re backed up by an incredible team. For me, when a big project comes in the door I’m chomping at the bit to check it out and dig in to see what’s going on because I have someone sitting right next to me, or right behind me, or right across from me who can answer any questions I might have. As a team we can knock it out of the park. That’s been something that’s been really rewarding for me about working at Blur and with this team specifically. 

 

Julia

We are super collaborative here, which I appreciate a lot as someone who is not on the engineering side of things. I can ask any questions I have without feeling like I should know [the answers].

 

Damein

There’s a lot of questions I ask that I feel like I should know, but no one ever says anything. 

 

Julia

Yeah, thanks for sitting down to chat today.

 

Damein

Absolutely, thanks for having me. 


In Focus Podcast - S1 006: Design Controls

In Focus Podcast: S1 - 006

Design Controls


Play Episode:

What, exactly, are design controls?

Why are they important in the world of medical devices?

Today we’re talking with Grace, a mechanical engineer, about her experience with design controls and how to implement them without stalling design progress.

 

Julia

So Grace, what’s your role at Blur and what experience do you have with design controls?

 

Grace

I’m an R&D engineer here at Blur, so I work primarily on mechanical design. Throughout my time here I’ve worked on several projects that involve design controls, from drafting requirements and user needs to creating design control matrices and then that dictates V&V. Also, executing V&V protocols and writing reports.

 

Britt

So what are design controls and why are they important?

 

Grace

Design controls are a road map for medical device development, and it takes a concept and brings it to a final design. It really starts from the beginning of a design and evolves with a device.

 

Julia

What’s one misconception people have when it comes to design controls?

 

Grace

That you can start after you’ve already designed your device. I know that Dustin touched on in a previous episode that a pitfall is you’ve only concentrated on the device and then you have to go back and come up with your user needs, product requirements, and the whole process. You could miss something because you don’t have all of those requirements outlined. You’ve created a device where there’s no way to calibrate it, or there’s a part in your device that is going to need regular maintenance and it’s really difficult to access so from a service standpoint you’ve missed something and you’ll have to go back and change things. 

 

I think it’s best to start after you have some sort of concept, or maybe the client has come to you with some sort of rudimentary prototype. That helps you identify here’s my user needs, here’s my product requirements, I have a handle on that. If you move forward and iterate on the prototype without design controls, you’ll probably end up with something close to the final device but have to go back and generate all of the documentation.

 

Julia

How do you balance the paperwork side of design controls, getting it done and not letting it all live in your head, but as a mechanical engineer getting the actual design done. Working on it, testing it, and evaluating it. I think maybe there’s a perception that design controls are taking away progress of the device design.

 

Grace

It has to be hand in hand, where you’re making progress on both sides, not just focusing on the design and you’ll do documentation later. It really impacts the timeline when you have to go back and do all of the documentation when you weren’t trying to keep up with it throughout the design.

 

Britt

Or even adapting. We had a client recently that came and they designed a device to fit in your hand, and it does that beautifully. Then when they actually put it in the field to test it out, the nurses were actually putting it in their coat pockets because it’s a small device. Now when the nurse bends over, it will fall out because it’s kind of slippery and it’s meant to be a remote control type feel.

 

We’re helping them come up with a more durable solution now that we understand that they’re not going to hold this and walk around the hospital. They’re going to put it in their scrubs pocket or they’re going to put it on a cart and their cart is also slippery. So then just working with clients to adapt their products and then think through the next risk associated with that. That’s some of what we have to do.

 

Julia

What does the process look like at Bur for implementing design controls?

 

Grace

Well, we start by generating a development plan. We work with a client and define the purpose of the device, provide a basic overview of what we want to create, and we break up the design into phases so we have a more manageable timeline. It’s an easier way to manage budget as well. 

 

Then identify any regulatory standards you want to comply with, that’s really important. Then working with clients to outline the needs of the user, and then after that’s defined including engineers to create product requirements. Think internal hardware, like pumps and sensors, anything that’s important to create a functional device. 

 

Once you have your user needs and product requirements laid out, you’re going to move on to risk assessments where we’ll identify potential hazards or harms associated with user operation of the device. So, how are you preventing unnecessary exposure to laser or electric shock which is very important to demonstrate to the FDA? 

 

Once all of those inputs are defined, we’ll go into design and development. Now I’ve got a strong foundation that I can create my design, making sure I’m taking into account the user needs and the product requirements. 

 

Julia

Having those requirements actually takes some of the fatigue out of making decisions; when you give yourself those guardrails, you can more easily say, “Oh, do we need an app or do we not need an app? Is the user population actually going to use this?” It takes the fatigue out of it, makes it easier to make decisions, and that also helps the timeline.

 

Grace

I think it helps to involve the whole team, too, so the teams aren’t siloed. You don’t want to say your firmware needs to do this, your mechanical engineer needs to do this, your electrical engineer needs to do this. Once you have an overall idea of how you need your device to work, I think it helps cross-functional teams communicate better so you can move faster in design and development.  

 

Throughout the process you’re doing design reviews, so have I checked all of the boxes for my requirements? You may change things from your design review. After that you’re going to generate your design control matrix, which is the big document that links all of the user and clinical needs and product requirements and risk to the design characteristics of your device. Say the user needs to use the device in a wet environment, now I need to create a sealed enclosure with a gasket to prevent water ingress. 

 

From that big design control matrix document, that’s how you generate all of your verification and validation protocols. This is really the final step in your design, you’ve made it, you’re almost there to submit regulatory approval. You have to test your device and make sure you’ve met all of those outputs. 

 

Like I said before, if you’re trying to create a device that’s going to be used in a wet environment then you would send the device off to a third-party ingress testing. They’re going to test your device, open it up and make sure there isn’t any water inside. 

 

Julia

How does Blur’s design control system adapt to different levels of technology with different levels of risk?

 

Grace

Taking risk into account from the beginning of the project so you’re not designing blind to any harms to the user or the clinical environment. So, having a risk management plan to outline what steps you’re going to take throughout the design controls process to identify and mitigate risk and determine who’s responsible for what tasks along the way. Then doing a risk analysis where you’re breaking down every risk associated with the device or process by identifying the intended use or misuse and then the hazards or hazardous situations, and assigning a probability of occurrence. What’s the likelihood of  a fire hazard or electric shock to the user? Taking all of that and putting controls in place to mitigate the risk. Say for a fire hazard, I know I need a fire-rated enclosure. For electric shock, I know I need to design the housings to prevent the user from being exposed to the electronics if they drop the device, things of that nature.

 

After device V&V, we can always go back and see if there is any residual risk by completing a benefit-risk analysis and maybe modify the intended use if necessary. Throughout the design process you’re conducting risk reviews, writing reports, and ensuring the final design is a low-risk device that is safe for the intended use.

 

Julia

Having seen a risk document or two, they can be super detailed. How do you know what to put in there, how do you determine that?

 

Grace

That’s a good question, I think it takes a team to fill out a risk analysis. You’re going to have to lean on the client because they’re going to know more about the environment it’s being used in. 

 

Also, not just having one person do the risk analysis is very important; one person is only going to think about a subset of the risk, and maybe they’re only going to think about the risk from the electrical standpoint or from the mechanical design standpoint. Having as many eyes as you can look at the risk analysis is how you get to a good document that everyone is happy with, including the FDA.

 

Julia

We’ve talked a lot about mechanical design and device development on the physical side of things. Can you tell me a little bit about how software and firmware is handled within our design controls?

 

Grace

Our approach is to separate the software and firmware from the hardware. Software and firmware gets its own development from the outset of the design. 

 

Once the user needs and product requirements have been established and you’ve created your software and firmware, you generate a product specifications document. You basically describe the functionality of the software and firmware to show how you’ve written it and accomplished those functions. 

 

Obviously we’re going to have separate V&V protocols to test against the inputs and show that you’ve met your requirements. All of the software and firmware releases are documented; every time you release software and firmware on the device it’s a heavily documented process. Everything is under controls. 

 

Julia

If you were to sum up design controls and the importance of it in a couple of sentences, tl;dr, what would you say?

 

Grace

Design controls are important for knowing how the device should be designed and what features you need to include to mitigate risk. 

 

We talked about having water ingress protection, or being able to pass a drop test to prevent electric shock, or having a fire-rated enclosure so there’s no fire hazard to the user or use environment. 

 

Ensuring that you’ve included everything that a user needs to successfully use your device and ultimately benefit from the use of your device, because that’s what medical device development is all about. 


In Focus Podcast - S1 005: Industrial Design and Mechanical Engineering

In Focus Podcast: S1 - 005

Industrial Design and Mechanical Engineering


Play Episode:

What does it look like when you combine industrial design and mechanical engineering? How do you get out of design ruts and push forward to find the best solution for a product?

To answer these questions, we sat down with Anthony, an industrial designer and mechanical engineer at Blur.

 

Julia

Anthony, can you tell me about yourself? How did you come to work for Blur and what do you do here?

 

Anthony

I’m a mechanical engineer and industrial designer here at Blur. I work on both of those, so designing the outside of the products as well as the internals and any combination in-between.

 

Britt

How many years of experience do you have in both of those?

 

Anthony

Maybe three or four years of purely just industrial design, and then I went back for a mechanical engineering degree after that. My jobs have all been a combination of mechanical and industrial design. So, maybe 13 years doing both combined.

 

Britt

That’s great.

 

Julia

What would you say made you decide to go back to school? You started as an industrial designer, went to school for that, and you had four years of experience doing just industrial design. What was that turning point for you that made you say, “Yeah, I think I want to go back to school for mechanical engineering?”

 

Anthony

I don’t know if there was a turning point. I had considered it when I was in school the first time. I didn’t want to give up on industrial design completely, I like doing both, I just don’t like to be pigeon-holed as just doing industrial design and styling stuff. It just made sense. I’ve always been interested in the internals as well and the development of an idea; more than what it should be but also the nuts and bolts of how to implement the idea.

 

Julia

Not just making it look pretty, but does it work?

 

Anthony

Yeah, yeah. It’s an interesting thing that you say that because industrial design can be a lot of things. It’s not always just making it look pretty. 

Britt

That is kind of a cool thing to think about. Industrial design everybody does think of, you know, the creative, the look, the sleek aspects of it. You’re right, there’s also asking if it’s ergonomically correct, how easy is it to use, etc.

 

Anthony

Yeah, I think that’s a big part of what we do here. It’s a medical product, so the look of it is not typically the driver of the product itself. I mean, it’s important, but a lot of times you have to have something that’s easily usable and meets all the product specs and requirements. It may need to look like a medical device or a well-planned product, or easily usable without having an instruction booklet tell you how to use it. All those are variations on the look, how to design it so somebody can actually use it. 

 

Julia

And that goes back to something we talked about in Dustin’s interview. He was saying that user needs really need to be the foundation of the product requirements. Everything needs to be traceable back to what the user needs it to do, and that’s the same for industrial design and mechanical design. At the end of the day, if you’re designing something that’s not usable by the person who’s supposed to use it, then you need to start rethinking. 

 

Anthony

Absolutely, and it’s going to depend on what industry you’re in for what you need industrial design for. There’s industries that really just care about the way something looks, where it’s purely fashion. You may be more budget constrained on your product so you care more about how cheaply this thing can be manufactured. Or, it could be a combination of usability and various facets coming together. You kind of have to balance how much to go into it; what’s the trade off between aesthetics, useability, cost of manufacturing, and everything else there.

 

Julia

Did getting a degree in mechanical engineering impact the way that you approach industrial design or change it in any way?

 

Anthony

It did change it. Previously I was able to hand off a design to a mechanical engineer, so I would develop what I wanted it to look like, maybe the skins on the outside and do all of that in CAD, and hand it off to somebody else who did all of the bosses and ribs and mechanisms. I do have to be a little bit more cognisant of how I’m designing it so my pathway isn’t a mess. 

 

I know the balance so I fight with myself while doing it, whereas previously that interaction was external between you and somebody else and give and take. Some of these products, it’s more of an internal argument with myself and determining the priority of a mechanism versus what I want it to look like. It’s a balancing act. 

 

I don’t always have the right answer for it and sometimes it may be easier to do that with somebody else. It’s great being part of a team where you can bounce these ideas off of somebody else, but I think I’ve had to be a little bit more aware of that next step that is handing off. 

 

Julia

What are some misconceptions that people have, either about mechanical engineering or industrial design, that you want to correct?

 

Anthony

So people typically think of industrial design as just styling, but in school you learn a lot more than that. You learn competitive product analysis, you learn doing some of these ergonomic studies. Obviously, styling is a big component of that. You learn a lot of different manufacturing processes and other things as well, things that people may typically think of being more mechanical engineering. 

 

It’s surprising a lot of times what people do learn in mechanical engineering versus industrial design. Every educational background is different, so where I went to school was more math based, based on the underlying theory of what was going on with the system. So, fluid dynamics or heat transfer or mechanics, whatever that may be. It wasn’t really practical knowledge in terms of manufacturing stuff, it was the equations that govern things underneath it all so that you could maybe apply that to a real world problem when you need it.

 

Julia

For your mechanical engineering degree?

 

Anthony

Yes, for mechanical engineering. For industrial design, I had a lot of classes and background on manufacturing type stuff. So, I learned thermoplastic processing, mold-making and injection molding, processes on sheet metal, die-casting, and a bunch of different production types. That’s really come in handy, having that background. When you get into this niche of product development people expect the mechanical engineers to have a lot of that knowledge from going to school. They think, “Oh, you’re a mechanical engineer, you must know about this stuff.”

 

Julia

Right.

 

Anthony

It’s really theory based. You may come into a situation like this where you learn more practical knowledge about manufacturing something from industrial design than you did from engineering. 

 

Britt

I’ve always been interested from an industrial design perspective how you handle clients when they really want something from an aesthetic perspective that just really won’t work or it won’t meet some requirement they’re looking at. How do you talk them through that and get them to where they need to be?

 

Anthony

This goes back to one of the differences between mechanical engineering and industrial design, which is the process. As far as mechanical engineering goes, in school you learn about this [process] that’s like, “Okay, I’m looking for this answer, I go through this process, I end up with this answer.” Whereas industrial design is very much a different process. In school I was like, why do I need to go through this whole process? Who cares about the process, the answer is the important part. Why do I need to do all of these derivative designs, all these iterations? It’s not super important.

 

Today I’ve realized the importance of that. A lot of times these multiple iterations will be great for showing the trade offs to a client. You can do exactly what they want and show them that they can do this, but it will cost them “X,” it’s gonna be way more expensive to develop. It may look great, but you’re gonna have problems with these human-interaction components of it or something like that. So, you can come up with these multiple different solutions to it and walk them through each one of them. 

 

Maybe I have a different idea of what I think the solution should be, but present it back to them, let them choose. If they really do think this is the most important part, that’s great because they typically know what is the important part of the solution. Earlier in my career I thought maybe I knew what was important, but I’ve come to realize that the client knows more than I do about whatever they’re doing. They’re the expert in that. 

 

In terms of what they need for their solution, pose it back to them. Make sure that they’re making an educated assessment of what goes into a solution, and then if they’re still set on it that’s the right path to go. 

 

Britt

That’s great, so we partner with them. Kind of help them get to the best solution for them.

 

Anthony

Exactly.

 

Julia

So in that iterative design process, how do you let go of the designs you create and be willing to let them go in the trash? I feel like that’s something that I would really struggle with. 

 

Anthony

That was a problem when I was younger. I’ll remember this forever: My very first studio professor, my very first project we had, we do these designs, we post them up on the wall, we do a critique of them, or the professor would. The students join in and talk about the good things and the bad things about all of these designs, and I remember being absolutely hurt the first time she did this. There were kids crying in my studio because you had never really had this honest assessment of what you had done. I think she was particularly harsh, maybe compared to some of the other professors, but I think it was a really good lesson and I appreciate it much more now than I did then. 

 

There is some benefit in being hung up on what you think is the right solution. Maybe your first or second idea is a pretty good solution; you may want to give that more attention. But, at the same time, you can’t fall in love with them. There’s probably a better solution on your fifth attempt, or your seventh attempt, or something like that. If you fall in love with that and you can’t clear your mind of it, you basically keep drawing or modeling the same solution, you’re never going to move onto a different solution or path. 

 

Julia

What do you do when you find yourself in that spot, where you feel like there’s more but you can’t get the idea out of your head?

 

Anthony

That’s a really tough question. I think that happens to everyone. What I’ve done is I’ve looked for people that have flashcards or brainstorming processes. I’ve pulled some together over the years of doing this, and I have a list of things I can look at to spark a different idea. Like, make it smaller. Make it bigger. Can you split out the functionality? Can you combine the functionality? Can you reuse a component? Can you do something recycled? All these different things that you can do, I have lists of all of these prompts that I can refer to if I’m stuck or just want to think about it a different way. 

 

Julia

Where do you draw inspiration from, and if you could describe your style how would you describe it?

 

Anthony

It’s tougher these days, I feel like I do more mechanical engineering than industrial design. When I did more industrial design I had a reference of pictures that I appreciated, whether it be old stuff or new stuff. 

 

There was a period of time when I really liked machined metal pieces. So, I did a lot of design that was based off of the details you might see in machined metal pieces. You might see a chamfer or holes for screw heads and things like that. Obviously you don’t have to have that for a cast or injection molded piece, but it still is an interesting aesthetic. 

 

If you do something like that, sometimes it looks even more powerful because you’re used to seeing it in this reference of being a metal piece. It goes back to the design thing, where maybe you’re not looking for the most beautiful thing but there is some kind of criteria you’re trying to meet with your design itself. Maye you want it to look robust, or well thought-out, or minimal. 

 

There are a bunch of things that can cause someone to buy a product or interact with a product well. It might not be that you want it to be beautiful, you just want it to be durable, or whatever that word is that makes a person think or realize that there’s more to this product than what meets the eye.

 

Julia

I noticed you started picking out adjectives. When you start designing a product, do you pick out an adjective and then decide, “I want it to meet this”?

 

Anthony

I have in the past, but I don’t typically do that now. Typically it’s not a deliberate act to pick out an adjective; as I’m drawing it I might think that it’s not quite the right aesthetic and I want it to look smoother or curvy or more user friendly. 

 

For a lot of stuff we do here, I don’t want it to look tough. If a user is interacting with a device you want it to look comfortable, or you want it to look user friendly. A lot of those don’t mean completely smooth, but there’s going to be some aspect of, “This thing needs to look like it can fit in your hand” and not just be “strength” or “rigid” or something like that. Probably not an intentional selection of adjectives, but there’s a flow there.

 

Britt

What’s your favorite project at Blur that you’ve had to work on, or a challenge you’ve had to work through that you’re excited about?

 

Anthony

There’s one in particular where we did kind of the medical device aspect of it and a bunch of other components to it. We did packaging, we started on the software internally, and things like that. I mean, I didn’t do the software, I don’t know how to do that.

 

Julia

Yeah, me either.

 

Anthony

But, it was nice being able to design all the components to go together. Sometimes we may just do the hardware or the hard goods and there may be other aspects of the system that integrate with that that you don’t get to control. But this time all those pieces came together, we did them in-house, and where we arrived with that was a really nice, integrated solution where everything looked like it went together. It fits together nicely.

 

Julia

I know the project you’re talking about. Yeah, that was very satisfying being able to say we really took our time to make sure that the needs of the user were being met in every aspect of it, not just the device portion.

 

Anthony

I know I was talking about the design process. You develop iteratively, you make progress by making prototypes, you don’t settle on your first solution. You hold it as a truth as a designer because that’s what’s ingrained in you at school, and I think that’s something that we’re pretty good about here. 

 

As a company we make sure we roll through the prototypes, you learn by failing in each prototype, and you iteratively improve.

 

Julia

Yeah, it is very much part of our culture. Fail fast, we want to fail fast because failure isn’t a bad thing, it’s where we learn. If you can translate that word failure into learning, then you can take those learnings and move them into whatever the next solution is. It’s just this snowball effect until you arrive at whatever the final solution is actually going to be.

 

Anthony

It’s a lot easier now. When I first started off you had to send your part off to some prototype house, and a few days later you’d get back this SLA or SLS part. You pay a bunch of money for it and you hope that it’s right. Now everyone has 3D printers in-house. We have FDM and SLA printers. It’s just so easy to come up with a concept, print it out, test it out the next day, have it in your hand, and iterate off of that. 

 

That was a problem when I was first starting out, you didn’t have access to getting this thing printed off immediately and trying it out. You basically had to plan to have this thing work right, you take your best shot at it, you hope everything is good, and you send away for it, and you get it back. You didn’t have that many cycles of the iterative process. 

 

That’s a really great part about having all of these printers on hand; I think the process has improved just because of the technology.

 

Britt

You can fail fast, you can fail the same day.

 

Anthony

There have been times when I’ve done that, especially with a small part. You put it on the printer in the morning, it takes a couple of hours to print, you clean it off, put it in your assembly, you make changes to your part, recycle it and you’re going again by the next morning. You’re printing it overnight so you can do multiple rounds a day too. It’s really useful.

 

Britt

It has been nice here because if we have a long lead on something, for the most part we can find a short-term solution in-house.

 

Anthony

And it’s expected that there will be some iteration. Your first solution is not going to be a perfect one, and it just takes time. We want to go as fast as possible, but that doesn’t mean settling on the first solution or expecting that first solution to be the right one. It’s probably the wrong one if you go down that path. 

 

If you pick the first solution, settle on it, do all of your engineering, everything else around that first solution, it takes a lot of time. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into product development, so it takes a lot of time. If you pick that first solution and make sure all of your drafts are right, make sure your bosses are right, make sure your screws and inserts fit, and everything works in the assembly including packaging, it takes a long time. If you come back to it a couple of months later and say, “This doesn’t do everything we needed for it to do and the users aren’t really happy with this,” you’d have to redo all of that work.

 

On the front end, doing that iteration and the process is where it really pays off. You don’t get too far down the line where you have a massive amount of work to redo at the end; no one’s happy when you do that. If you run with the idea early on maybe you look great for a little while, but when you have to backtrack no one is happy about that. 

 

Julia

Yeah, client’s never happy about that.

 

Anthony

No, they’re never happy about that.

 

Julia

What’s some advice you would give someone who is just starting off in mechanical engineering or industrial design?

 

Anthony

It really depends what you want to do as far as mechanical engineering goes, that’s such a broad topic. For product development, it’s maybe just tear-downs if you’re naturally inquisitive about how something works. The more solutions you see the better you’re going to be at it. If you’re trying to work in a vacuum without ever having seen these solutions before, everything is going to have to be created from scratch which is really difficult. I mean, it’s difficult to do once, you don’t want to have to do that for everything you’re designing. 

 

So, product tear-downs for mechanical engineers, the other one is application guides. Everyone wants you to use their product, so make sure to look for their application guide. Injection molding, metal casting, everything under the sun has them; make good use of them. I have a library of hundreds of these application guides on these different processes or materials. It’s easier to just refer back to the file that I have rather than having to scour the internet to hopefully find what I need next time.

 

Julia

Right. 

 

Anthony

Industrial design: never stop looking at inspiration. It’s always changing. 

 

I feel like you can typically identify an industrial designer by the work that they do, there’s kind of a style to it. I don’t know if I’ll ever grow out of the style that I have, but at the same time I think it changes over the course of years. It’s like music, you get bored with one thing so it migrates away. You find something else interesting and you pull those accents into your work. There are definitely visual styles and you maybe combine that into what you do. 

 

Not working in a vacuum in terms of references; they teach you that in school, but make sure you do that in your work life too.


In Focus Podcast - S1 004: Research and Prototyping

In Focus Podcast: S1 - 004

Research and Prototyping


Play Episode:

How do you research effectively when beginning to prototype a solution? How do you know you’ve done enough research to troubleshoot a problem?

In this episode, we’ll chat with Erin, one of our R&D engineers, about her process of finding the best solution through rapid, iterative prototyping. 

 

Julia

Erin, thanks for being with us today. Tell me what you do here.

 

Erin

I’m a research and development engineer. I’ve been here a little over four years.

 

Julia

And you started as an intern, right?

 

Erin

Yeah, not counting the summer I started as an intern, I guess that would be four and a quarter years then.

 

Julia

Talk about that research part of research and development and prototyping, because I know that’s a lot of what you do here.

 

Erin

Yeah, definitely! As an R&D engineer a big part of my job is doing research, especially at the start of a project. We’ll come in, the client will have an idea for a concept but there’s a lot of research that has to be done to figure out what components you need, how to source those components, sourcing materials, and finding people that can produce the parts we need. I do a lot of research in my day to day job.

 

Britt

You’re about to do some research, where do you go first? Google?

 

Erin

Yeah, I mean honestly, most of the time Google. I try to start out with a broad search and cast a wide net. I’ll see what key words I see popping up a lot and use that to modify my search, and then I seek out experts, whether that’s someone at Blur or someone out in the field for their help. I also keep a log of every person I’ve contacted, what suggestions or notes come out of that conversation. That way I have a log of everything I’ve done and I can go back to that research, or if someone else at Blur is researching a similar part or concept I can go point them to that. 

 

Britt

It’s great that everyone seems to be creating these libraries that you can reference instead of recreating the wheel every time.

 

Julia

I think it shows just how collaborative we are too. The resources that we find or the processes we use, it’s not just about us and getting our work done, it’s about saying, “I did this and found it useful, let’s keep it so that someone else can use it because I know someone else is going to run into this problem at some point.”

 

Erin

Right. Someone else is going to need a camera, so let’s compile a list of all the cameras we’ve used so we don’t have to repeat that work on the next project. 

 

Julia

Yeah, definitely.

 

Britt

Do you ever have times where you’re having trouble finding data? Just altogether you can’t find any information, and how do you handle that?

 

Erin

Yeah, we definitely run into that more than we would like. I think that’s sort of where the testing and prototyping comes in. For instance, if we’re looking for a specific material property that we can’t find, can we get the material in and prototype something ourselves? Is there a simulation we can run with CAD software, find a similar material, and see if that gets us close enough? If we can have a simulation and a test that point towards the same answer, maybe that takes the place of whatever online answer we’re looking for. 

 

Julia

How often would you say we run simulations here to help in that research process?

 

Erin

I say we do it on almost every project, whether it’s a finite element analysis (FEA) or a flow simulation. I feel like I’ve done that with a lot of the projects I’ve worked on. We’re always 3D printing components of a device and testing those before we’re going to full scale production. 

 

Julia

What would you say in your research process is the most challenging part and what do you find the most rewarding?

 

Erin

I’d say the most challenging part of the research process is if it’s a really specialized component and there’s not a lot of people who make it or know a lot about it, you’re really relying on people to respond to your cold calls and emails. That can be challenging sometimes. I’d say the other big challenge is when a part has a lot of requirements, so it needs to be low cost, high lead time, really durable, juggling all of those different requirements can be a challenge. Or, if you’ve thought you found a new part that would work and a new requirement gets added, you have to go back to your spreadsheet that you’re keeping of all your options and reevaluate that. 

 

Britt

Yeah, I was going to ask how do you manage that with a client? They’re adding new requirements, how are you able to communicate with them that this new requirement means extra time or extra cost?

 

Erin

I really think you just have to be transparent with them and say, “We can switch to this part, that’s not a problem, but that may mean the lead time changes, the overall cost of the device changes.” If you’re switching from a smaller part to a bigger part, that housing that it lives in will probably have to change and that part now is going to get more expensive. Understanding that changing that one part can have a ripple effect is important to make sure the client understands as well.

 

Julia

I think that’s a super important part of presenting anything like that to a client. Having all of those details worked out so you don’t just say, “We can’t do that.” Instead say, “If we do that, here’s what’s going to happen” and then letting them make the decision. At the end of the day it’s their decision to make, and maybe they don’t mind that it’s going to cost more and they really want that specific part or to use that specific process. Definitely make sure you’re getting them all of the information they need to make that decision. 

 

Erin

Yeah, I agree.

 

Britt

When you’re first starting to prototype with a new client, what are you go-to initial questions to get the ball rolling?

 

Erin

When we kick off a design, the thing that I care about most is what function it needs to serve. I’m not as concerned with the overall size it needs to fit within, or if it has to meet all of these certifications. I’m most concerned with function at first. After we have an initial design, the next things I’ll look at are the material it should be made out of and the quantity we’re looking at. If we only need three for some demos we’ll probably 3D print it, if we need one thousand we’ll be injection molding it. And then past that, it’s good to look at usability. Does it need to have a handle, does it now have to fit inside this other part, what constraints does that mean? Also, being aware of color, does it need to be transparent, does it need to be waterproof, biocompatible, food safe, all of that. Those are all important to know, but they’re not the first things I worry about when starting a design.

 

Julia

How do you know or make a decision that , “Okay, I have done enough research to confidently go with the solution to the problem I’m experiencing in this design.”

 

Erin

It depends on the test. A test is targeting a specific function, whether it’s usability or waterproofing. Typically there’s a sequence of tests. I’ll start small, like if it’s how two parts interface I’ll just prototype and 3D print those two parts cropped to where that interface is. Once I have that working I’ll print the full-size parts, make sure that works, share it with the client, and have the users handle it and make sure they don’t have any complaints. Past that, what are the differences between the part you’ve prototyped and the production part? If one’s 3D printed and one’s injection molded, is there going to be any difference between them that would cause it not to seal properly, or be waterproof, and making sure you’re confident that despite those changes the design you have will still work. I think that’s when you can check that box that testing’s passed.

 

Julia

Getting prototypes in the hands of users is so important because, as we have experienced many times, they will give you feedback you haven’t even thought of. 

 

Erin

For sure, yeah. The earlier the better.

 

Britt

So you’ve been at Blur for four and a quarter years, what’s something you wish you would have known your first year that you could advise others?

 

Erin

I’d say just not being afraid to ask people questions. Everyone at Blur is so smart and so capable, so if you get stuck and you can’t solve a problem, don’t spend time just noodling away on it yourself. Go take a walk around the office and bounce some ideas around with people because someone is going to have an answer and it’s going to be a lot quicker than if you were just to sit there alone in your corner of the office.

 

Julia

Yeah, muddling through it on your own. 

 

Erin

Right.

 

Julia

What was the most intimidating part of our machine shop when you first started?

 

Erin

It’s not really part of the machine shop, but the casting-molding station was really intimidating. At first, just because there were so many components and steps to the process. I was so worried about messing things up. You have to measure stuff initially, make sure you have the A and B components at their correct ratios, degas it and pour it into the mold. Make sure there aren’t any bubbles and put it in this pressure pot; make sure that’s all sealed correctly, which always freaked me out. Then you just have to wait a couple hours until it finishes molding. You don’t know if you’ve failed or not until you take it out.

 

Julia

I’m sure there were times when you took it out and you were like, “Aww, dang.”

 

Erin

Yeah, like last month. I had a part that I thought didn’t need mold release, which helps it come out of the mold easily. I went to take it apart and it didn’t move. I was trying to use all these tools to pry it open and it was just chipping away at the tools. I had to just throw it away and start over, so now I use mold release

 

Julia

As you’re prototyping and testing, what parts of our labs do you use most frequently?

 

Erin

I use the 3D printer probably the most; right now it’s every single day and I’m kind of hogging it. The laser cutter I use fairly often, that’s really handy when you have larger assemblies that you have to build really fast. I work a lot with the UV cure adhesives, so I am using our UV light pens pretty often. Those allow you to bond things together really quickly, and we have a whole bunch of different UV adhesives for different materials. 

 

I don’t venture into the machine shop with all of the blades very often. When I first started I was using a circular saw and I didn’t realize there was a safety so I revved it; Jeff was standing next to me and I think I really freaked him out. He was like, “Yeah, I’ll do that for you” and I said, “I think that’s probably a good idea.”

 

One part that took a lot of testing and troubleshooting and iterating on was we had these two components that had to interface and seal in two different chambers. We wanted that to be done in a single connection so that the user just had one piece they had to connect. We looked at a couple different ways of doing that, either a press-fit, a snap-fit, a press-fit that’s just plastic on plastic or silicone on plastic. 

 

So, I did a lot of prototyping back in the lab. I would print those two parts on our 3D printers, and really just segments of the parts to speed up the prints and save us some money as well. I’d just print a bunch of different interfaces and see how well they sealed. 

 

The silicone on plastic interfaces I would overmold the plastic with one of our silicones we have back in the lab and test those. We narrowed it down to three different options, and we’re working on getting each of those full-size parts printed to send to the client. They’ll evaluate each of the three designs and see if there’s one they really like, or if they like all three we’ll bring them to the users and see if there’s a favorite among the users. If there’s not a favorite among the users, we’ll just pick the one that we like the best and will be the easiest to manufacture. That’s been a lot of iterating on and time with the 3D printers and molding station, which has been a lot of fun.

 

Julia

The benefit to having this in-house prototyping capability is we can come up with a lot of ideas for how to do things. You were just saying, you were just saying you made so many… how many prototypes do you think you made?

 

Erin

There’s like a hundred different pieces on my desk right now. 

 

Julia

Exactly, we have all of these different ideas for how these two parts can fit together, but by being able to do this in-house and fairly quickly we can throw out the ones that don’t work.

 

Erin

And each part is really only about an inch big since I’m just cropping it to that interface, so it’s really not wasting too much material or time to get those printed.

 

Julia

How long would you say it took you from the time you started 3D printing these up until you had the three core ideas?

 

Erin

When I am working on it, I’ll print a couple designs one afternoon, test them the next morning, figure out what I don’t like about each design, make those changes, and get them back on the printer that afternoon. So, the iteration cycle is pretty quick. 

 

Julia

Thanks for coming on Erin and chatting with us.

 

Erin

Yeah, thanks guys, thanks for having me.