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An Engineer's Sphere of Influence is the World

There's always a story behind the design of novel technology that solves problems in new ways. This is one such story...

One note before we get too far along: I didn't come up with the quote we used to title this post. In fact, it was 19th century composer Carl Maria von Weber who said, "An artist's sphere of influence is the world."

In our case, the "sphere" of influence was something quite tangible...

When I look back at the key turning point in our design process for CleanCision, it happened when we were actually stuck in a rut. We were going through countless iterations and hadn't landed anywhere. Then, we were struck by inspiration from an invention that was completely different from what we were trying to develop.  

It’s the same process that inspired Sir James Dyson and Dr. Florent Michel. Sir Dyson’s iconic vacuum cleaner was inspired by massive industrial cyclones sucking up sawdust at a powerful rate. Dr. Michel’s initial design for the Eargo hearing aid came while he was tying flies for fishing and realized that a hearing aid that was shaped like a fly would fit beautifully into the ear canal.

Boldly going where no device had gone before... (would any engineer's story be legit without the cheesy use of a Star Trek reference and a cool model starship?)

Photo credit: Grzegorz Czapski Poznan, Poland, April 29, 2017 Pyrkon - Fantasy Convention - Star Trek USS Kelvin

In the early days of our design process the team identified an opportunity to fight and defend against the sources of surgical site infections (SSI) by combining wound retraction and protection with fluid irrigation. Retraction, protection, and irrigation had never before been combined into a single system, so we had to design the product from the ground up.

We worked closely with surgeons, infection prevention experts, and operating room teams to develop a deep understanding of the critical and stringent needs of users, the often chaotic operating room environment, and what mattered most to patients. Together, we brainstormed all kinds of ideas which we handcrafted into prototypes. The prototypes then became the focal point of feedback sessions where we experimented on foam and cadaver models to help our users visualize how the product could work. Those sessions were intensely candid and unsparing in their praise and criticism.  

Months of trial & error, candid feedback from smart, dedicated experts

At times, the feedback was tough to hear after we’d put in hours in the lab, but ultimately we were grateful that our collaborators were able to offer so much insight early on in the process.

We spent months exploring and discarding ideas such as inflatable concepts, pull cords, and structures that used spiral mechanisms. None of them worked very well, nor did they have the “wow factor” we were hoping for.

Eventually we started to think about how we could “pull” the wound open evenly with a circular structure, rather than pushing it open as some of the earlier prototypes had done. But we were quickly stumped because we knew of no other medical technology that did this. I could visualize what we wanted to do, but didn’t have the words or means to describe exactly how to do it.

Hoberman’s toy ring and expandable sphere flew into view

Photo credit: OnlineScienceMall, Hoberman Pocket Flight Ring
Photo credit: Audrius Merfeldas

Hoberman knew his “toy” had greater applications as he said, “I didn’t set out to make toys, but it’s been a revelation to see the huge variety of relationships people have with toys.” Of course what Hoberman created wasn’t a toy at all. It was a universal set of principles, a blending of complex engineering, science, and math that he converged into a profoundly elegant structure. It was just the inspiration we needed.

When spheres collide

We immediately saw a clear relationship between the design of the Hoberman disc and sphere and the structure I had in my mind. I bought as many as I could and started building prototypes to see if it would work.

Photo credit: Prescient Surgical

The structure worked as I had imagined and it immediately resonated with everyone who saw it.

Photo credit: Prescient Surgical

The fluid delivery and removal functionality was then embedded into the plastic sheath under the expanding ring to irrigate the surgical wound edges. When shown to practitioners, the familiar paradigm was immediately understood. That made it possible to move on to the nuances of the design around its size, its adapability to the surgeon's technique, and so forth. 

The concept becomes a reality

Over the next months as the details were hammered out, the team incorporated the feedback and continued refining the design until it was polished and ready for use. The final product bears a striking resemblance to the initial concept.

The final CleanCision design fully reflected all the critical feedback from our user community. Photo credit: Prescient Surgical

While the disc and sphere sent us flying in the right direction, the most important part of our journey was getting critical feedback from surgeons, infection prevention experts, and operating room teams. They were candid and unsparing in their criticism and generous with their encouragement. 

Our own toy story

I recently saw some kids playing with the expandable sphere and tossing the Hoberman flight ring around in the park. I headed over to them to tell them how that cool “toy” inspired the design of CleanCision and to remember to be open to inspiration from surprising sources.

Photo source: Prescient Surgical, OnlineScienceMall

Luckily my wife stepped in, before I could go deliver my lecture, to suggest that kids might not be the appropriate audience for a discussion about the perils of surgical site infection and the need for advanced technology to fight the wound contamination that occurs during surgery!

During the design and development of CleanCision, we discovered that an engineer's sphere of influence is truly the world. We continue to be inspired by the artists, scientists, makers, developers, and creators out there who provide great inspiration for invention. 

And most importantly, we're grateful our technology is helping hospitals better protect patients against the contamination during surgery and improve their outcomes.