Design to Innovate — Not Just to Manufacture

 In Engineering, Medical Product Design

The development of medical devices can follow many different paths depending on a myriad of inputs: new technology, cost, market adoption, etc.  At Mindflow, we see many projects that focus on two of these paths: products focused on efficiency in manufacturing and those focused on design innovation. This article will provide a perspective on how to get the most out of a project through a focus on design inputs.


Manufacturing projects are usually the result of optimizations or opportunities in existing products or production lines. Some examples: We buy a widget and resell it but now it’s time to cut out the middleman and make the widget ourselves to save cost and improve profits. We had a market-leading product that could have manufacturing costs reduced through improved design. We have a good product that is no longer cost competitive.

These types of projects typically have quick deadlines due to clear goals set early on. These projects are quite attainable when planned well with market and production knowledge all lined up. Clear direction and open eyes about the competitors give these projects a high chance of success.

Other times the problem isn’t the cost of production but reduced value due to competition in the market. These projects can then become costly exercises in supply line and manufacturing optimizations for a dead-on-arrival product.


Innovation projects are typically part of a start-up or an existing company looking to expand into new products or leverage new technologies. Some examples: We have a great idea for ready for development into a completed product. We have competition that has pushed our product out. We have a new technology we need to capitalize.

An innovation-focused project is comparatively costly and time consuming than DFM projects. Inherently  DFI projects have less robust definitions at the planning stage. However, a strong sense of the market and production processes are still key to success. In addition, creative thinking is fostered by these initial inputs and restrictions. The common belief that ‘no limits foster novel ideas’ is actually stifling. Clear boundaries on DFI projects lead to the best new ideas. The process of innovation can be complicated with ups and downs: design directions that fizzle out, new processes that need testing, effective designs with expensive manufacturing, etc. Ultimately, innovation will save time and therefore cost in the long run.

Ideation sessions, competition analyses and an eye to novel production processes will guide development and reduce the risk of schedule overruns. While this will be time consuming and hard to predict, the benefits outweigh the risks.

A product that is easy to manufacture at a low cost but provides only incremental value beyond the current market leader won’t survive. Similarly, the most innovative product in the world will reach no hands when produced at ten times the cost of the market leader.


Inputs are key. Bringing cross-functional perspectives from across a company will facilitate the best design brief possible: market expectations, key features, passed pitfalls, cost limits, competitor successes, production capabilities, annual units, etc. In the medical device world, there must be careful consideration of regulatory (e.g., FDA) needs and risk in every design conversation. Clear definitions agreed upon by all the interested parties at a very early date will save a project. Processes like Six Sigma or House of Quality are key to defining and implementing transparent communication at all levels.

Inputs create the freedom to elevate the design. Despite what many think, well defined inputs give a design group, within a clear schedule, all the tools needed to innovate. Time to follow multiple concepts, even knowing most will be left behind, is necessary. This isn’t an open-ended process. Structured ideation time with supporting research and clear deadlines provide the best value. Freedom to explore new ideas, approaches and processes will open doors.


Innovation is not only a goal in its own right but also a powerful tool. Its greatest effect is to break through boundaries facing a product. Where is this value best applied?

Improved manufacturing is the bread and butter of large established companies. Small or new companies with limited product lines need to focus on value, both real and perceived. However, the best product will fail if no one notices its superior quality. This is a problem that plagues many great products and must be solved. Innovation is great at overcoming this issue.

Perceived value is king for new players in old markets or for fresh technologies.   New, innovative products are generally very well perceived in a crowded market.  Industrial design combined with design engineering are crucial in innovating to this perceived value.  Many design groups will nail down engineering requirements and designs early on. This traditional workflow sounds sensible. Why make choices that will harm production and therefore cost down the road?

While intuitive, this process usually ends with products similar to those already on the market that have only minor updates. They lack novelty and fall under people’s notice. This process will not produce high-value products that push the market forward and make a brand stand out above the rest. Many times, companies make perfectly competent or even superior products that never capture market share. This comes from the all or nothing reality of markets. A product which is 5% better typically captures a lion’s share of the market but an established product can eclipse this effect.

To break through this barrier, a new offering needs to be hands down better in every way. That product won’t get there with out innovation.

This goal is difficult but attainable. Clear goals from all constituents at the earliest date creates the road map. Having these inputs in place, along with innovative designs, engaged with the ‘nitty gritty’ of manufacturing, create a great new device. One that will defy market expectations and overcome the challenges of a new offering.


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