Product Development Outlook for 2018


Ken Haven

December 20, 2017

As we close out the year and look forward to 2018, we see a number of trends and developments in technology and business that will have a significant impact on product design.

Bioelectric Medicine (aka, electroceuticals or neuromodulation)

Pharmaceuticals are fundamental to our healthcare – from pain management to the treatment of chronic diseases, the common cold, impotency, etc. – to see how prevalent it is, just count the number of drug related advertisements on TV during prime time. Yet the development of drugs is becoming increasingly expensive, both from an R&D and treatment perspective – investments of over $1B is not uncommon to bring a drug to market. And there are often unwanted side effects (listen to the end of those commercials) as the drug is generally circulated through the entire body.

That has led many researchers and companies to explore non-drug treatments – from stimulating the body’s immune system to combat leukemia, or utilizing deep brain stimulation probes to treat Parkinson’s disease. In the past 3 years, over $1billion in investment by companies such as Boston Scientific, Medtronic, and Google’s parent company (Alphabet) has been made in the Bioelectronic medicine space. Some products, such as Neurometrix’s Quell pain relief device, have received FDA approval and being marketed to the public, sold without a prescription. Others, such as Boston Scientific’s implants to treat lower back pain, or Respicardia’s Remede implant to treat central sleep apnea.

We’re at the very early stages of many of these developments, and there are many questions to be answered, both technical and business-wise, but the future looks very promising.

AI and Robotics – the rise of the intelligent machine or overhype?

There has been a lot of discussion lately around robotics and AI – headlines talking about masses of jobs being replaced by robots, to the end of the human race (being taken over by robots) – we’re not going to debate the merits of these arguments (at least today..), other than to say that like many trends, the extremes generally don’t occur as the reality doesn’t match the hype, in many aspects.

Rodney Brooks, founder of iRobot and current CTO/founder of ReThink Robotics, recently talked about his concerns around the overhyping of AI, and gave some examples of many of the challenges that AI based systems have. AI is not a panacea, and while significant advances are continuing to be made, it will be a long time before we robots with significant “human-like” capabilities.

What we do see is the use of AI, coupled with improving sensor technology, to allow robots to more easily integrate into/work in environments that are less “structured” (ie, a manufacturing line is an example of a fairly well-structured environment vs. a city street with pedestrians, that is fairly unstructured). In the short term, human oversight or management is still required for many of these unstructured environments, particularly those that are life/mission critical.

We also think we’ll begin to see the integration of cloud based AI capabilities with physical machines/robots, creating new product categories. Think of taking Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, or Google’s Home/Assistant and integrating it with a robot. Amazon is already promoting their Alexa for Business capability, focused on more office related tasks such as notifying IT of a broken printer, or placing orders for office supplies. Imagine combining this capability with a mobile robot that could roam within an office environment that could handle physical tasks with cloud-based AI capability. Or a similar robot in a hospital setting that could both order and retrieve/deliver items.

Continued evolution of 3D Printing

3D printing is continuing to evolve and finding a place in product development and manufacturing. While the technology still has a way to go before it can provide much broader usage applications, meaningful implications for higher-volume production are anticipated across products ranging from toys to medical devices.

In the medical device field specifically, there are a breadth of applications across both medical and dental segments that can utilize today’s existing 3D technologies, in some cases through the development of special medical materials. Human body sized components are sized relative to the human body, and thus can be manufactured by most systems, with a number of applications seeing print volumes globally of hundreds of thousands, to millions of components per year. Many of the valuable applications don’t require significant robust mechanical performance or resistant properties, including medical and dental models, surgical guides, custom instrumentation, and short to medium term prosthetics. Professional, cost effective 3D printers are often utilized today in both medical and dental markets, bringing a wide range of potentially disruptive cost benefits. Companies such as HP are developing newer printing technologies that appear to have applications in the medical device market.

While plastics continue to dominate 3D printing materials, a broader variety of offerings can only stand to benefit everyone. Plastic 3D printing technology remains the best understood and most utilized — but of course it could be better still. Look for increasing efforts to enhance materials capabilities, with major players in the chemical field from BASF to SABIC working to enhance availability of high-strength and specialized materials. Many of these companies are turning to collaborative efforts, working alongside big name companies in additive manufacturing to create compatible, optimized materials.

It promises to be an exciting year in product development!

About the author

Ken Haven has been CEO of Acorn Product Development since the company’s founding in 1993. Ken has more than 25 years of product development experience including technical leadership roles with NeXT Computer, Attain, Inc., and Hewlett-Packard. He holds MS and BS degrees in mechanical engineering from Cornell University.