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.

Olympics

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.

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.

Image result for angry boss

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. Keith Turner has written the following series of articles describing some of the most common techniques.

Critical observation

High speed video

Change one variable at a time

Save tooling for later

Break it into manageable steps

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.

Let the patient decide: an autoinjector with patient-settable injection time

Autoinjectors have to inject the drug within a reasonable range of time.

The minimum injection time is set by potential discomfort.

The maximum injection time is set by one or more of:

  • The patient wanting the injection to be over as soon as possible;
  • It could be difficult to hold an autoinjector steady for more than a few seconds; and/or
  • We cannot expect people to count time accurately, so they might not wait long enough before removing the autoinjector if it takes more than a few seconds.

However, patients are diverse: some might prefer the injection to be over as soon as possible; but others might prefer a longer, more gentle, injection.

So can we design a device to let the patient set the injection time before starting the injection?

There are several injection devices on the market that do this, but they are electronically controlled and so carry a burden of cost and complexity which could not be justified in many cases.

We set ourselves the challenge of designing a mechanical autoinjector where the user can set the injection time, and this is what it could look like:

Autoinjector with patient-settable injection time

 

It is obvious to see that the patient (or carer, parent, doctor, nurse etc.) can move the lever on the right to set the injection time.  Here, they can choose anywhere between 5 seconds and 30 seconds.

The user can then remove the green cap on the left hand end, and press against their skin to trigger the start of injection.

If you are interested in this concept, or any other drug delivery device development questions, please get in touch with Tom Oakley at Springboard.

Appendix: the limits on device design

The article above is written from a user-centred design perspective.  In practice, there are engineering limitations on injection time.

Autoinjectors with low viscosity drugs and/or small injection volumes can inject fast, such as 3 seconds for EpiPen. [1]  On the other hand, some biologics need up to 15 seconds for 1 mL injections. [2], [3]

There are some drugs which require a volume of more than 1 mL to be injected, which could require a longer injection time again.

Typically, the reason that autoinjectors cannot inject viscous drugs quickly is that it takes a large force to push the drug through the needle quickly, and increasing the force can break the syringe or cause problems like creep during storage before use.  We could use a larger diameter needle, but patients prefer thinner needles. [4]

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to my Springboard colleagues Jafarr Adam for the autoinjector CAD model and decals and Rachel Lewis for the renderings.

References

[1] National Institutes of Health, USA

[2] Cimzia AutoClicks Instructions for Use

[3] Enbrel Instructions for Use

[4] Anderson B and Redondo M, “What can we learn from patient-reported outcomes of insulin pen devices“. J Diabetes Sci Technol. 2011

3 sure steps to faster R&D

Are you an R&D manager who would like to get your products to market more quickly?

You may have suffered project delays such as: just can’t get it working; people seem to be busy on other things; you thought it was all fine but after it was all tooled problems started to occur.

Or the worst one of all: a product recall because of an adverse patient safety event.

Everyone wants to avoid problems like these, but the big question is how can you greatly increase the chances of success?

Here’s one good answer:

Many organisations go straight in to step 2. Design the product, do a few tests and then commission production tooling. But often, the production environment is slightly different from R&D. A few changes are made. Aspects that “just worked” before, now “don’t always work”. Problems grow and it is mighty painful to iterate your design within the constraints of already-made tooling. You can spend ages trying to get it to work with minor modifications, and eventually accept that you have to spend that $5m on tooling and automation again. Ouch.

Step 1 is the key to fast, low-cost R&D. If it costs, say $100k to properly understand the science, that is peanuts compared to spending the $5m twice for step 3. A good understanding comes not only from scientific insight, but rigorous and methodical testing of the failure modes, backed up by sufficient statistical evaluation to be sure you have confidence in the results.

Very many companies I work with don’t do step 1 to sufficient detail. As a result, they often suffer delays of, quite literally, many years. For a product worth $50m a year, it’s mad to suffer that loss for the sake of a few $100k up front for a few months. So my advice is to invest effort in step 1 to reduce risk as much as you can. Get the best people you can find to do so. And make sure that when you spend the big money in step 3, you are certain that you’re only going to do it once.

Nanopatterning for medical applications

Nanotechnology appears in popular culture as a cure for everything from cancer to balding. In science nanotechnology is an umbrella term for a variety of structures and molecules used in optics, MEMS, materials, chemicals and some biological systems.

In this new blog series, we shall explore nanopatterning (the engineering of nanoscale structures on surfaces), its prevalence in nature, manufacture and application to medical devices.

Drawing inspiration from nature

Figure 1 – Sunset moth scales macro by Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel, Cropped, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Nanoscale structure plays a fundamental role in numerous biological systems, and in some cases has developed to aid an organism’s survival and proliferation. Nanostructures can impact on the wetting and optical properties of a surface as well as their molecular interactions. Adjusting the spacing and morphology of these structures can change how they behave in contact with solids, liquids, biomolecules and how they catalyse certain chemical reactions. Organisms rely on these structures to stay clean, aid communication, and promote or prevent adhesion. The presence of ordered micro- and nanoscale structure appears to the human eye as iridescence created by the selective scatter of certain wavelengths of light.

Dry adhesion

While the exact mechanisms of adhesion differ, the feet of various tree frogs, insects and lizards rely on nanoscale and microscale structure to cling to and climb vertical or inverted surfaces. Perhaps the most famous climbers that rely on adhesion are geckos. Gecko climbing ability comes from millions of hair or setae on their feet which experience Van der Waals interactions with the substrate [1]. Individually the interactions are weak but collectively give the gecko the adhesive force necessary to hold up to four times its own weight. These setae evolved from tiny hair-like growths present on the bodies of all geckos [2]. Generating setae involves lengthening these hairs and splitting the tips to produce micro- and nanoscale hierarchical structures. Curiously, researchers have found that several gecko species developed these adhesive abilities independently when faced with an environment where climbing aided survival, losing them again over time when the environment changed [2].

Figure 2 – Gecko’s secret power by Matteo Gabaglio, Annotation, Order, CC BY-SA 3.0

In the last 20 years, the adhesive strength, reusability and non-fouling properties have attracted increased interest in gecko-inspired adhesives. Manmade micro- and nanoscale hierarchical patterns produced by embossing, casting or roll-to-roll printing have resulted in several tape and patch analogues. As popular as this topic has been, it has not been without its challenges. In addition to difficulties in manufacturing, gecko mimetic adhesives experience poor adhesion to wet and contaminated surfaces [3]. Water disrupts the surface interactions which is also the reason why PTFE (which exhibits weak Van der Waals dispersion forces) is one of few materials that a gecko can’t climb on [4].

Wet adhesion

For wet adhesion it makes more sense to look to water dwelling organisms. Mussels create an adhesive containing a tyrosine residue called DOPA, which has seen increased attention. DOPA and similar coatings are key to allowing nanopattern based adhesives to work in wet conditions. The structure of DOPA allows mussels to form strong and reversible bonds with a variety of substrates [5]. Mussels use this to anchor their pads to rocks and withstand significant punishment from tides and currents. Researchers have so far used DOPA and analogues in an attempt to develop improved surgical adhesives, particularly for amniotic sac repair[6]. Some have combined this with the gecko adhesive above to produce all-purpose hybrids named “Geckel” [7]. These hybrid surfaces consist of a microstructure coated in mussel mimetic adhesive to achieve adhesion in wet or dry conditions. As with any novel technology, achieving a robust product and scalable process has likely limited its implementation. Alternative adhesive-free-adhesives for wet conditions look to the octopus for inspiration. Although an octopus sucker is far larger than the other features we have discussed, its design has been the inspiration for many micro- and nanoscale mimics. Octopodes use suckers as muscular-hydrostats where the internal volume is increased to generate low pressure (≤ 2.7 bar below ambient pressure when submerged) [8]. The octopus vulgaris differs from other species in that it utilises a ball in cup morphology to maintain adhesion and resist shear [9].  Its unique morphology creates two regions of low pressure with the ball protrusion sealing the two volumes and mechanically locking the sucker configuration.

Figure 3 A.) Suckers of octopus by Steve Lodefink, Suckers of octopus by Steve Lodefink, CC BY 2.0. B.) Illustration of sucker adhesion mechanism of Octopus vulgaris.

Octopus mimetic surfaces produced by vacuum casting use microscale suction cups (~ 100 μm) with a similar ball in cup morphology to generate suction [10]. This approach has seen some applications targeting skin but so far appears limited to working on flat surfaces and generating relatively weak vacuums. Some commercial materials such as REGABOND micro-suction foam are aimed for the general consumer market and work on a similar principle [11].

Repulsion

Some plants use micro- and nanoscale texture for an alternative purpose, the “lotus effect” being the most famous example. The lotus effect arises from the ability of micro- and nanostructures to amplify the natural tendency of a surface, making hydrophobic materials superhydrophobic. A lotus leaf has arrays of hydrophobic waxy hierarchical micropillars on its surface [12]. The high roughness and low contact area of these pillars forces water droplets to adopt a Cassie-Baxter state where air is trapped below the fluid meniscus. To reduce the Gibbs free energy of the system the water droplets adopt a highly rounded shape. This allows them to slide off and pick up dirt in the process, keeping the leaves free of debris. The springtail takes this effect further with a cuticle that has a re-entrant or overhanging surface structure [13]. These structures resemble nanoscale mushrooms which pin the fluid line to prevent even low surface tension fluids from fully wetting the surface in what is referred to as oleophobicity. The springtail uses this for survival creating an air trap around its body when submerged. Both superhydrophobicity and oleophobicity are found in industry, often finding use in semipermeable membranes and self-cleaning coatings. The surface energy and morphology of the of the coating material dictate the degree of nonwetting. These structures are still vulnerable in high pressure applications where the structures or the film of air can collapse.

Figure 4 – The springtail cuticle has been used as inspiration for manmade re-entrant omniphobic surfaces A.) Springtails. B.) Springtail submerged in water. C.) Springtail submerged in oil. Scale bars: 1 mm. Image from R. Hensel et al. [13], CC BY-NC 3.0.

A very different, and potentially more robust approach is used by the pitcher plant. In these plants a microporous surface is used to retain a lubricating fluid film. The films are created when water or nectar becomes locked into microscale textures in the surface of the plant creating a continuous layer of lubrication. The film is immiscible in the oil on the insect’s feet resulting in a surface that easily shears away on contact and very low friction. Unlucky insects which land on the plant’s lip end up sliding down into the plants digestive fluid to become a snack. The film is replenished by capillary effects which redistribute fluid across the film surface. The advantage of this arrangement is the immiscible fluid is incompressible unlike the air used by the lotus leaf and allowing it to serve in higher pressure applications.

Figure 5 A.) Sarracenia pitcher anatomy by Noah Elhardt, Sarracenia pitcher anatomy basic, marked as public domain. B-E.) Microstructure of N. gracilis waxy surfaces. Scale bars shown. Image from Bauer et al. [14], CC BY 4.0.

Pitcher plant mimetic surfaces have been named “slippery liquid-infused porous surface(s)” or SLIPS. These surfaces can be tailored and often use a lubricant which is immiscible in the target substance. The porous substrate consists of open interconnected pores to retain the lubricating fluid. While evidence of industrial application is limited, it is a promising route to stain-resistant coatings for optics.

Optical effects

Certain organisms use micro and nanostructures to produce iridescence that makes the rest of the animal kingdom pale by comparison. While many rely on chemicals for coloration, using microscale structures is called structural coloration or physical colour. Butterflies use this effect for visual communication to find mates or scare away would-be predators. The most famous example is the Morpho butterfly native to Latin America [15]. The Morpho is an underwhelming (but well hidden) shade of brown with its wings closed but a bright iridescent blue when they open. The blue iridescence comes from tiny chitin gratings on the surface of a butterfly’s wings [3]. The layering of these structures causes diffraction and constructive interference of visible light waves according to Bragg’s law, producing the visual perception of a very intense colour [17]. The angle at which the butterfly is observed changes the colour we perceive the wings to be, shifting from blue to copper when viewed at an angle. The papilionidae family of butterflies use similar architectures combined with fluorophores to harvest NIR light to create luminescence [18].

Figure 6 – A.) Blue morpho butterfly by Gregory Phillips, Blue morpho butterfly, CC BY-SA 3.0. B.) Nanoscale Structures on a Blue Morpho Butterfly Wing Image from Potyrailo et al. [19], CC BY 4.0.

The unique physical, chemical, and optical properties of these structures have led to interest in several industries. Extensive research and development efforts have gone into mimicking these effects for energy harvesting, sensing and photocatalysis [19]. For medical applications they have a role to play in optical biosensing. By coating a grating in environmentally responsive molecules or hydrogels an optical indicator can be constructed. Structures such as this have been coined hydrogel-actuated integrated responsive systems (HAIRS)[20].

We hope that this has been an interesting read. The next edition will discuss the practicality of fabricating these structures, and their suitability for parts used in medical devices.

If you have any questions about micro engineering and smart surfaces, please do not hesitate to get in touch or find me on LinkedIn.

Bibliography

[1]        K. Autumn and N. Gravish, “Gecko adhesion: evolutionary nanotechnology,” Philos. Trans. R. Soc. A Math. Phys. Eng. Sci., vol. 366, no. 1870, p. 1575 LP-1590, May 2008.

[2]        T. Gamble, E. Greenbaum, T. R. Jackman, A. P. Russell, and A. M. Bauer, “Repeated origin and loss of adhesive toepads in Geckos,” PLoS One, vol. 7, no. 6, 2012.

[3]        A. Y. Stark, T. W. Sullivan, and P. H. Niewiarowski, “The effect of surface water and wetting on gecko adhesion,” J. Exp. Biol., vol. 215, no. 17, p. 3080 LP-3086, Sep. 2012.

[4]        A. Y. Stark et al., “Adhesive interactions of geckos with wet and dry fluoropolymer substrates,” J. R. Soc. Interface, vol. 12, no. 108, p. 20150464, Jul. 2015.

[5]        J. H. Waite, “Mussel adhesion – essential footwork,” J. Exp. Biol., vol. 220, no. 4, p. 517 LP-530, Feb. 2017.

[6]        M. Perrini, D. Barrett, N. Ochsenbein-Koelble, R. Zimmermann, P. Messersmith, and M. Ehrbar, “A comparative investigation of mussel-mimetic sealants for fetal membrane repair,” J. Mech. Behav. Biomed. Mater., vol. 58, pp. 57–64, 2016.

[7]        H. Lee, B. P. Lee, and P. B. Messersmith, “A reversible wet/dry adhesive inspired by mussels and geckos,” Nature, vol. 448, p. 338, Jul. 2007.

[8]        J. J. Wilker, “How to suck like an octopus,” Nature, vol. 546, p. 358, Jun. 2017.

[9]        F. Tramacere, L. Beccai, M. Kuba, A. Gozzi, A. Bifone, and B. Mazzolai, “The Morphology and Adhesion Mechanism of Octopus vulgaris Suckers,” PLoS One, vol. 8, no. 6, p. e65074, Jun. 2013.

[10]      S. Baik, D. Wan Kim, Y. Park, T.-J. Lee, S. Ho Bhang, and C. Pang, “A wet-tolerant adhesive patch inspired by protuberances in suction cups of octopi,” Nature, vol. 546, pp. 396–400, 2017.

[11]      “materialdistrict.com.” [Online]. Available: https://materialdistrict.com/material/regabond-s. [Accessed: 05-Sep-2018].

[12]      T. Darmanin and F. Guittard, “Superhydrophobic and superoleophobic properties in nature,” Mater. Today, vol. 18, no. 5, pp. 273–285, 2015.

[13]      R. Hensel, C. Neinhuis, and C. Werner, “The springtail cuticle as a blueprint for omniphobic surfaces,” Chem. Soc. Rev., vol. 45, no. 2, pp. 323–341, 2016.

[14]      U. Bauer, B. Di Giusto, J. Skepper, T. U. Grafe, and W. Federle, “With a Flick of the Lid: A Novel Trapping Mechanism in Nepenthes gracilis Pitcher Plants,” PLoS One, vol. 7, no. 6, p. e38951, Jun. 2012.

[15]      Y. Ding, S. Xu, and Z. L. Wang, “Structural colors from Morpho peleides butterfly wing scales,” J. Appl. Phys., vol. 106, no. 7, pp. 1–6, 2009.

[16]      R. Yan et al., “Bio-inspired Plasmonic Nanoarchitectured Hybrid System Towards Enhanced Far Red-to-Near Infrared Solar Photocatalysis,” Sci. Rep., vol. 6, no. December 2015, pp. 1–11, 2016.

[17]      S. Zhang and Y. Chen, “Nanofabrication and coloration study of artificial Morpho butterfly wings with aligned lamellae layers,” Sci. Rep., vol. 5, pp. 1–10, 2015.

[18]      E. Van Hooijdonk, C. Vandenbem, S. Berthier, and J. P. Vigneron, “Bi-functional photonic structure in the Papilio nireus (Papilionidae): modeling by scattering-matrix optical simulations,” Opt. Express, vol. 20, no. 20, p. 22001, 2012.

[19]      R. A. Potyrailo et al., “Towards outperforming conventional sensor arrays with fabricated individual photonic vapour sensors inspired by Morpho butterflies,” Nat. Commun., vol. 6, p. 7959, Sep. 2015.

[20]      J. M. J. den. Toonder and P. R. Onck, “Artificial cilia.” Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, 2013.

What does ‘rapid’ really mean?

One of the real strengths of working with a consultancy is the ability to increase the size of your team, bring in extra skills and get a project off the ground very quickly.  When you’re behind schedule on a market launch, regulatory submission, or faced with an unexpected verification test failure or recall, this speed can be the difference between successful and unsuccessful outcomes for your project.

So what does ‘rapid’ actually mean?  How fast is fast?  Let’s illustrate with an example of a project Springboard completed recently:

One Wednesday, we received a call from a client already known to us, asking us for help with an urgent problem.  This would require a mix of literature-based scientific research and practical testing in the lab.  Results were needed as quickly as possible, and certainly in time for a meeting three weeks later.

Springboard pulled out all the stops to plan the project and write a detailed proposal within two days, submitting this to the client on Friday morning.  The client was able to send written authorisation the same day, and put parts in the post for next day delivery.

The project leader briefed his team at 10 am on Monday morning.  The team – comprising two PhD-level scientists and a graduate engineer, with technical oversight from one of Springboard’s directors – hit the ground running.  Devices were disassembled and testing began before lunchtime.

The first update call to the client was delivered at lunchtime on Thursday.  This was a 30-slide PowerPoint presentation rich in technical detail, all of which was backed up with either laboratory experiments or cited academic papers.  In discussion with the client’s team members, we agreed the priorities for the next week of research.

Two more updates were delivered before the client’s original deadline, and the client went into their meeting briefed and confident.  A 42-page report, backing up all of the observations and conclusions drawn with full references, followed a week later.

Project timeline

Two days to plan and propose a project.  One week to deliver first results.  One month to deliver a complete project yielding real technical insight to drive policymaking.  No ongoing commitment.  A real illustration of how an agile consultancy can react much faster than a large corporation, and so add real value to urgent development and troubleshooting projects.