Medical Devices: Understanding the Ergonomics

Handheld Endoscopic Device

Handheld Endoscopic Device

In this blog post, we'll first take a look at the role of medical devices in the United States before discussing the impact of ergonomics when it comes to the design and development of new medical devices. Lastly, we will leave you with some thoughts regarding the relationship between rapid prototyping and ergonomics.


Medical Devices in the United States

Medical devices play an important role in the delivery of many health care services. Defined broadly, medical devices are items that are used for the “diagnosis...cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of disease” and are not absorbed or metabolized by the body. The term applies to everything from common medical supplies such as latex gloves and syringes to advanced imaging equipment and implantable devices such as cardiac defibrillators. The medical device industry is thus an important component of the larger health care system and plays an essential role by developing new medical technologies that can improve the ability to diagnose and treat illness. Recent studies by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) have estimated that the United States is the largest single market for medical devices and accounts for about 40 percent of worldwide sales. In addition, total U.S. spending on medical devices was $119 billion in 2011, $125 billion in 2013, and $172 billion in 2015 respectively. Medical device companies are located throughout the United States, but the industry has a larger presence in California, Massachusetts, and Minnesota.


Understanding Ergonomics

While it is clear that medical devices are a key cog in the health care industry, they are also extremely prominent in the product development realm. Having designed, engineered, and prototyped medical devices for over 20 years, we can tell you that one of the most critical design aspects of medical devices is the product’s ergonomics. Also known as human factors, ergonomics is an applied science concerned with the design characteristics of an object that people can use efficiently and safely. But what makes a product “ergonomic”? The answer is that there is no single answer. That is what ergonomics is all about, designing to fit the user(s).


The Dynamics of Ergonomics

Throughout the life of any product however, there may be more than one user and or more than one kind of user. This is one of the most important factors to consider. Ergonomic product design is not solely for the end user, it is for all users. The three stages of ergonomic design considerations are:


  • Users to build/assemble the product
  • Users to use the product
  • Users to maintain/repair the product


These different stages of a product’s life may also have multiple users. This is often seen in hospital environments where both a patient and a nurse could use the same medical devices differently. Whether it is a hospital bed or an MRI table, each user has their own specific needs during use. A common design flaw is when a product may fit user needs at one stage but not another. A truly ergonomic product considers the user needs at each stage and begins incorporating ergonomic design considerations during the conceptual phases of the product development process.


Rapid Prototyping and Ergonomics

As one of the more complex aspects to a product’s design, ergonomics requires product development companies to leverage rapid prototyping technologies regularly for design verification purposes. Taking 3D Models to tangible objects is a huge advantage when it comes to testing ergonomic design integrity. But by using tools such as 3D printers, product development companies now have access to a cheap, fast, and efficient way to test the tactile representation and feel of their designs. According to Forbes, proof of concept (34%) and prototyping (23%) together dominate 3D Printing applications today. In addition, when it comes to ergonomic testing, structural integrity and durability is not as necessary for design verification. This allows companies to avoid the need for programming heavy machinery like other products may require. So while narrowing in on a sound ergonomic design takes time and attention to detail, technological advancements in the rapid prototyping realm have enabled product development companies to produce higher quality ergonomic products.