While pursuing my engineering degree my professors provided me with a thorough understanding of mechanical and electrical design and instruction on how to build prototypes for testing. As far as technical skills were concerned, I was well equipped to turn my ideas into real inventions. Unfortunately, my engineering school, like most others, never went beyond these technical aspects of inventing. For example, we never discussed the business and legal aspects of manufacturing and selling an invention.
The fact is, most first time inventors have little or no understanding of how to go about obtaining a patent to prevent others from copying and profiting from their inventions. They also tend to take a haphazard approach to inventing, neglecting important issues such as whether a market for their invention exists, or whether they will face competition already in place. A lot of time and money can be spent developing an invention, only to discover that it had already been patented by someone else. They do all the up-front work, blissfully unaware of the repercussions of negative possibilities, like getting sued by any existing patent holder, suits which are among the most expensive to defend.
For most individuals the patent process is a hotbed of mysteries and misconceptions. Let’s start unraveling them by first gaining a basic understanding of what a patent is.
In short, a patent grants you a legal right, much like other legal rights you may be more familiar with. For example, if you own property, say a car or piece of real estate, you’re provided with a legal document known as a title. This title defines your legal right to own that property.
Similar to a title, a patent grants you the legal right to own intellectual property, or IP, as its inventor. IP is a term used in the business and legal arenas to refer to creations of the inventor’s mind. Once patented, these creations become the property of the inventor, and they have commercial value. This value is derived from the fact that the patent can be used to exclude others from producing the invention and profiting from it. The IP rights can also be sold or licensed to others for a profit.
IP can encompass subjects as diverse as machinery, articles of manufacture, compositions of matter, and many diverse processes, all of which we’ll look into during the course of this blog series.
Archive for March, 2013
Did you know that from the early days of the Industrial Revolution until well into the 20th Century it was common practice for all aspects of a product to be built entirely under one roof? For example, a wheelchair manufacturer in the 1890s would buy the various raw materials needed to construct component parts, everything from bars of steel and wooden boards to rattan stalks and gum rubber, then produce every part of the wheelchair in one facility. Items as diverse as chair frames, footrests, wicker seat cushions, springs, wheel rims and spokes, and tires would all be constructed from the raw materials purchased, then assembled into the finished product.
Doesn’t sound like an efficient process to you? Henry Ford didn’t think so either. In fact, he is credited with pioneering mass production in manufacturing when he observed during the production process of his line of automobiles that inefficiencies abounded.
Inefficiencies in manufacturing are common, as they are in everyday life. Last time we saw how robots, i.e., the introduction of industrial automation, can be used during the Production stage of our systems engineering approach to medical device design to increase efficiency and reduce manufacturing costs. Today we’ll take a look at another inefficient practice, along with its solution.
Returning to our wheelchair manufacturer, the problems associated with manufacturing and assembling all aspects of a product are many. At the top of the list is the substantial cash outlay that’s required to buy and maintain a huge factory complex and all the specialized equipment required to make each and every part. In addition, there’s the ongoing expense of employing and training employees needed to fabricate each component. In other words, the wheelchair factory has a lot of fixed overhead expense to carry, and the more overhead there is, the more expensive the end product. Expenses such as these are almost always passed on to the buyer.
The solution? Outsourcing. That is, using outside manufacturers to produce many, perhaps even all, of the component parts. Then our wheelchair manufacturer would simply assemble the purchased parts into the finished product, resulting in lower manufacturing costs and higher profits. The benefits of outsourcing were widely recognized in the decades following World War II, when the post-war economy was booming and demand for consumer goods increased dramatically.
That ends our look at the Production stage. Next time we’ll move on to the Utilization stage to see how the systems engineering approach is put into play once the medical device has been introduced into the marketplace.
| When I was a kid I had a toy robot that captured my attention like no other toy. I thought it was so cool to have something animated that looked both humanoid and machine-like at the same time. It couldn’t do much, just walk in a stiff, jerky way and move its arms up and down, but that was enough to keep me fascinated.
Today’s generation of robots do not often take on the humanoid form, but they’re capable of so much more. Robots on assembly lines perform a variety of tasks like welding and placing electronic components on circuit boards, and they do it much more quickly and accurately than any human could, so they’re often employed in manufacturing.
We’ve been discussing the Production stage of the systems engineering approach to medical device design. We learned that within the manufacturing process there are often opportunities for cost reduction, and today we’ll see how robots can be used to reach those goals.
Last week we presented a sample scenario involving the manufacture of a percussion therapy device. In their quest to reduce manufacturing costs, engineers identified bottlenecks along the assembly line which led to idle worker time and the inability to keep up with orders.
In addition to these production woes, it was discovered that the tedious, repetitive manual labor that occurred at each bottleneck created opportunities for assembly mistakes. As many as 30 devices per day were being rejected by quality control inspectors due to issues such as faulty wiring and improper parts usage. This led to expensive rework to correct mistakes.
After further evaluation, design engineers determine that bottlenecks can be eliminated by installing automated assembly equipment in the three distinct assembly stages represented on the line, those involving wiring harnesses, printed circuit boards, and the motor drive mechanism.
The potential for human error is high during many facets of manufacturing, and this can be minimized or eliminated through the use of robots, that is to say, mechanized equipment capable of automatically performing a complex series of specific tasks. These robots never tire of performing tedious, repetitive work, and their efficiency is unparalleled. Their introduction at key junctures on the assembly line has benefits across the manufacturing process, enabling workers to keep continuously busy and reducing the incidence of human error.
The introduction of robotics is known as industrial automation. Robots efficiently increase manufacturing speed, and along with it profits, so their introduction more than compensates for the investment costs associated with purchasing them.
Next time we’ll continue our look at the Production stage to discover another way that systems engineering can simplifying the assembly process, by eliminating some functions altogether.