Strategies for faster R&D: Break it into manageable steps

When Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbed Everest for the first time in 1953, they didn’t just take a giant leap for the top. Rather, they conquered the 8000 meter giant in a series of 10 centimetre steps with manageable milestones along the way.


An R&D analogy is a company who had spent years developing a new biopsy product in which a rotating blade advanced over a needle used as an anchor. The samples were small and unreliable, so customers were losing confidence. They had tried a bigger motor, sharper blade, different shape, but to no avail. Generation 4 was on the market but still too few customers.

Instead of leaping immediately for a whole new design, we broke the challenge down into a series of steps. How strong is the anchor force? How big is the cutting force? Which is larger? These could be measured simply on a standard piece of laboratory apparatus called a tensometer. When the graph was plotted, we could see that the cutting force was far greater than the anchor force, so the device was just recoiling every time it fired.

So the next steps were: how can I make the cutting force smaller? How can I make the anchor force larger?

Breaking down the problem into steps like this means you then spend your time solving the right problem. It might feel that pausing to do a sequence of scientific experiments adds time compared to aiming straight for the whole answer, but in reality it is often possible to find a much quicker route to success. If every step is in the right direction, you’ll arrive at the answer. But if you spend time solving the wrong problem, no matter how elegantly, you get nowhere.

This is an approach we’ve done for our clients many times over, and the savings can often be measured in years.

Please contact Keith Turner if you think we could help you or if you would like to be alerted to the next strategy.

Strategies for faster R&D: Save tooling for later

There’s a great quote by Thomas Edison when asked if he felt like a failure because of all his failed attempts to invent the electric light bulb. “Young man, why would I feel like a failure? And why would I ever give up? I now know definitively over 9,000 ways that an electric light bulb will not work. Success is almost in my grasp.”


And not one of those 9,000 prototypes was made on a production line.

A situation that our clients commonly find themselves in goes a bit like this. “Yes, I know it’s not quite working yet but time is running out before the product launch next April and so we have to commission the tooling now. Management aren’t willing to let the launch date slip.”

It brings to mind a medical project in which the disposable part had been pushed through to injection moulding. The trouble was that revisions to the design were still being made. It was possible to modify the tool, but each time that happened, it took six weeks to get the next parts released before they could be tested.

Earlier in the same project, we had been prototyping the disposable component on our CNC mill. You could do a test, modify the CAD, set the mill running overnight and test the next iteration the next day.

Short development cycles demand flexibility, and for this it helps to delay tooling until you know the design works in all respects except for those specifically dependent on tooled properties. Even if you need 100 parts for a clinical evaluation, perhaps they can be machined? It might cost $10,000 and some planning ahead in validation, but that’s child’s play compared with a 12 month delay to a multi-million dollar programme.

There’s a whole suite of prototyping methods available today, such as additive methods (SLA, 3D printing, SLS, vacuum casting…) and subtractive methods (machining, laser cutting, EDM…), not to mention various ways of sealing, bending and so on.

In the next article we look at how to break down a daunting, complex problem into a series of manageable steps.

Please contact Keith Turner if you think we could help you or if you would like to be alerted to the next strategy.

Strategies for faster R&D: Change one variable at a time


When the Wright brothers were trying to make their great aeronautical leap forward, they didn’t just throw feathers and motors at the problem to see what happened. Rather they tried to determine which of the three key challenges to mastering flight was most critical: wings, engines or control? Looking at the effect of changing one variable at a time helped them to determine that the critical weakness was in control, meaning that they could innovate in this aspect and set the way to their landmark achievement.

Wright brothers

It brings to mind a project where we were developing a cryosurgery probe to kill breast tumours by freezing. We had a functioning system that worked off a heavy gas cylinder but had recently made the exciting discovery that a simple 1 litre flask could be used to drive the probe directly from liquid nitrogen. This was easier to use, smaller, and cheaper, and so a sure-fire commercial advantage for our client. However, when we scaled our new technology up to full size it didn’t work. It wasn’t just slow, it was completely hopeless, and failed to get even remotely cool to the touch. Yet the only difference was the size.

But was it? The new flask was bigger, that’s true. But actually, the bung that sealed it was also a larger diameter. It was also deeper. And it was a different material. And the dip tube was longer to reach to the bottom of the larger flask.

On reflection, there was quite a lot different about the new system, and we had changed it all at once. This meant we didn’t know which thing we had to change to resolve the problem. There was a deadline approaching, and it was tempting to just jump to the end and try stuff in the hope it would work, but with planning we figured that we had a chance to solve the problem in two weeks by starting with the working miniature system and changing one feature per day until we had created the large system. 10 days, 10 features- surely one of those would be the key?

On day 1, we machined a new bung for the small flask out of the same material as we were using for the scaled-up system. It worked perfectly. On day 2 we scaled it up to the larger diameter- still great. On day 3 we extended the dip tube- still chugging along nicely. On day 4 we machined a deeper bung… nothing. A complete failure to freeze. It was now a simple deduction that the deep mass of rubber was sinking heat into our cryoprobe and preventing it from freezing. We added insulation around the tube as it passed through the bung and made ourselves a perfectly working full-size system. All in less than a week, which means we still had time to write the final report for our client who was visiting the next week.

This technique is widely used in science, and is particularly powerful when you have one prototype that you know works, but can’t figure out why another comes up short. If changing one variable at a time does not reveal the problem, there is probably one or more interactions between the variables. We can use techniques in a field of engineering called Design of Experiments to reveal them, but that is a subject for another day.

In the next article we look at how to speed up the development cycle by saving tooling until later.

Please contact Keith Turner if you think we could help you or if you would like to be alerted to the next strategy.

Strategies for faster R&D: High speed video

When the world’s fastest men competed for the 100m Olympic gold medal in Athens, 2004, four athletes crossed the line in a blur. But the event organisers didn’t just squint and pick a winner. Rather, they used high speed video to slow down the motion and changed the method of observation so that it became clear that the new champion was Justin Gatlin.


It brings to mind a project I once worked on where we were trying to control air flows inside a dry powder inhaler. The powder kept ending up in the wrong place, and nobody knew why. We had tried different geometries, but to no avail. Finite element modelling hadn’t helped either.

“You can’t see what’s going on because it’s opaque”, people said. Well, true to a point, but with only a little effort it was easy to prototype transparent parts and set up a video camera at 2000 frames per second to visualise the particles. It was beautiful, and you could see each particle whirling about on its journey from the hopper to its final resting place stuck on the side wall. It soon became apparent that the problem started as the particles crossed a particular join in the moulding. This enabled us to focus our attention on that particular problem spot, and we soon found a leak. It was then a simple engineering job to seal the leak and recover the performance that was expected.

We have used high speed video on numerous projects at frame rates over 100,000 per second. Sophisticated techniques can be used to quantify stresses in moving parts and relate their behaviour to material properties. There are also more sophisticated variations, such as stroboscopes and particle image velocimetry, which uses pulsed lasers to visualise the movement of particles over tens of microseconds.

Have you ever had your prototype working, only to see it do something unexpected in its next iteration? In the next article, we look at a technique for staying at the best performance.

Please contact Keith Turner if you think we could help you or if you would like to be alerted to the next strategy.

Strategies for faster R&D: Critical Observation

Nearly 200 years after its inception, Darwin’s theory of evolution still lives as one of science’s greatest breakthroughs. Yet Darwin made this monumental advance in understanding without the use of any computer, internet, or modelling software. He used direct, critical observation and a sceptical mind.

Darwins finches

It brings to mind an occasion when I was trying to work out why an ink-jet filter was blocking. The blue pigment sludge that built up on the filter over 30 minutes was causing the printhead to fail way short of its 100 day lifetime target. We had tried all the obvious things: bigger holes, shaking the mesh, scraping it clean, measuring the reduction in flow-rate, but all without success.

Because the pigment particles were only 1 micron across, we found it hard to work out what was going on. But is it really that difficult? There was a microscope on the bench next door and one of those swan lights that lets you change the illumination angle. With some new brackets and a special transparent cap, it was possible to set the filter up and running on the microscope and watch the particles. As they approached the mesh, some would stick to the wire material. Then the next would stick to the first particle, and another until long chains were formed that bridged the hole and it blocked. Then I tested a mesh with smaller holes and to my amazement, it actually took longer to block. As the particles approached the small holes, they sped up to get through the restriction, rather like a rapid in a river. All this extra speed caused them to dislodge other stuck particles and prevent blockage.

So the answer was to make the holes smaller, not bigger! And it was understood simply by looking very carefully.

In a modern lab there are all sorts of ways to help you look. Optical microscopes, electron microscopes, laser strobe systems are just a few of them.

In the next article, we look at one particularly useful way to assist critical observation.

Please contact Keith Turner if you think we could help you or if you would like to be alerted to the next strategy.

Strategies for faster R&D

Could you really cut R&D times by a factor of five?

Senior R&D managers are constantly under pressure to deliver their new innovations to the market. A plan with stage gates is agreed: proof of principle; detailed design; verification; validation; launch in 18 months from now. But it is frequent that five years later, despite everyone’s best efforts, the product still isn’t on the market. A new plan is in place to launch in 18 months from now.

Does this sound familiar? If it does, you are not alone. Executives want to reward those who can cut time to market yet many innovations get stuck in a cycle of insufficient performance, unexpected failures and unacceptable cost. Months turn into years.

At Springboard we employ strategies to reduce these timescales and we repeatedly find that five-year old problems can indeed be overcome in a year. The trick is not to deal with the string of problems more quickly, but to avoid them all together. In the coming months, we will be sharing some of these strategies through a series of blog articles. If you’d like an alert when the next article is released, contact Keith Turner and ask to be sent the link or connect on LinkedIn.

Springboard is a technical consultancy that solves difficult engineering and physics problems in short timescales, helping companies to get successful innovations to market more quickly.

Latest news on Pre-Filled Syringes

The recent SMi conference on Pre-Filled Syringes brought together experts from the pharmaceuticals, manufacturing and materials industries to reveal and discuss the latest innovations and market trends for the important Pre-Filled Syringe sector.

The highlights were:

  • The sources and types of leachables by Joel Richard of Ipsen
  • Filling syringes will high concentration monoclonal antibodies by Yuh Fun Maa of Genentech
  • Incorporating human factors and patient centric design by Alex Jaksch of BD
  • Smart labelling by Thorsten Kircher of Schreiner MediPharm

The smart labelling presentation in particular showed some fascinating possibilities whereby labels could have RFID or NFC chips embedded, which can transmit information to a smartphone, for example redirecting it to a website.

If you wish to find out more about the latest developments in Pre-Filled Syringes, please feel free to contact Tom Oakley on +44 1223 422 273.

Springboard awarded project with Judge Business School

Cambridge University’s prestigious Judge Business School has elected Springboard as their partner for a new research project into an exciting growth area of drug delivery devices.

The project will discover the growth opportunities for large volume injectors and will inform companies how to drive their technology strategy to maximise long-term commercial success.

The precise details will be revealed when the final report is made available in December.

The report will be made available to Springboard’s customers free of charge, and to others for a reasonable fee.

Please contact Tom Oakley if you would like to be notified when the project has been competed.

New technology development company launched today!

A brand new technology development company has launched today to provide innovative companies across the world with specialist skills in new technology and product development.

Springboard delivers technology development of the highest quality with crystal clear project leadership and inspired creativity.

This will help you accelerate your time to market, access new markets, increase profitability and build your intellectual property portfolio.

Springboard’s clients operate in high value markets where outstanding technology, inspired creativity, risk management, quality control and project leadership need to be of the very highest level. Read more…