Examining Medical Device Design: An interview with Enda O’Dowd

Enda O’Dowd, the course coordinator for MSc in Medical Device Design (MDD) at NCAD, holds a degree in Polymer Technology and an MSc in Engineering Product Design. He specialises in using science, technology and design thinking to create innovative human-centred products and services.

How did the MSc in Medical Device Design come about?

The MDD masters was started in 2009 by Paul Fortune who was the head of the NCAD Industrial Design department at that time. He had identified a niche for designers to work in the medical device design industry.

Has much changed since the course’s inception?

Up until a few years ago, the medical design industry’s focus was on materials and manufacturers. Nowadays, particularly as devices become increasingly complex, the entire process has become a lot more human-focused. The FDA are the gold standard for medical device regulations worldwide and they have recognised that there’s a real need for attention to human factors. This means that there is a much bigger role for human-focused designers within the medical device industry.

Is this course unique in Ireland?

The course is certainly unique in Ireland and possibly even worldwide in terms of having an MDD course which is based in an art and design college. Of course there are other MDD courses which also have a human focus but they tend to be based in engineering colleges.

Which sort of projects can new students expect to be involved in on this course?

For the last few years, the first project undertaken by our students has been with the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI). This project allows the students to get very immersed in human factors through building a task-trainer for trainee surgeons. Working in teams, the students’ first step is to undertake a highly detailed analysis of how a specific task is performed. This provides the information required to build the task-trainer effectively. Throughout the project the students have access to the trainee surgeons and clinicians, making for a really rich, immersive experience.

How about projects with industry partners?

We have partnerships with medical device companies such as Cook Medical, Hollister, Medtronic, Teleflex and Stryker. The collaborative projects we undertake with industry partners tend to have a fairly open brief. Again the students work in teams and undertake immersive, human-centred research before presenting their research findings and design concepts to representatives from the company involved. Getting professional feedback is really important as it allows the students to see if their proposals are heading in the right direction and how innovative they are. They can also get real-world advice as to how manufacturable a proposed product is and what the regulatory implications might be. Each student gets to present their final design to senior management. This is a great learning experience and, knowing that they can produce ideas for industry which are taken seriously, really builds the students’ confidence.

Have you ever had industry partners take on student ideas?

Yes, we have generated a number of patents. However, the MDD industry can be a funny one in that even though a lot is patented, not everything will be developed. From the student perspective, the proprietary nature of the work means that generally they can’t put it in the public domain. However we tend to recommend that, in an interview setting for example, they discuss the design process rather than the specifics of the intellectual property that was generated.

Do you also work directly with hospitals?

We work with St. James’s hospital (TCD) and The Mater Hospital (UCD). For these projects, we put out an open call inviting anyone in the hospital to put forward an idea they might have for improving a device, experience or service. We narrow these down to roughly ten proposals which are then worked on for a week by our students in tandem with NCAD’s Interaction Design students or the Bioengineering students from Trinity. Again it’s great because we get that human-focused research in the hospital and the students get to present their concepts to the project’s “ideator” before working on a final design solution for them. It’s a rewarding process and in fact we are always open to collaborating with clinicians who have ideas for products.

What is the final phase of the course?

The students’ theses projects take place over the summer months. This is the best opportunity to work with external people because each student is dedicated to working on a single project for a three-month period in collaboration with a clinician or industry partner.

Do your students have success getting into the industry?

Yes its a good area, a lot of them tend to have jobs lined up before the course is even finished.


More details of the Medical Device Design programme can be found here

Email postgraduate@ncad.ie

Enda tweets at @endaodowd