Toeing the Line (of Manufacturing)

Put on your thinking cap!

I had a busy week at Boston, full of learning, training, and projects. I got to tour the manufacturing line of a device that I am working on, watch a live-video heart procedure, and get excited about packaging engineering. It was a great week and I am learning a lot about medical devices, processes, and company dynamics.

About to enter the clean room to tour the manufacturing line

Starting the week off with a bang, I gained another project. I am excited to be working with Karlee, Guiselle, and Jorge to understand the functioning and manufacturing of an ultrasound catheter. This catheter has ultrasound imaging in its tip so that doctors can view the inside of arteries to find blockages and plaque. It is an amazing device that can prevent heart attacks and strokes. On Tuesday, we suited up in gowns, hairnets, gloves, and booties, and entered the clean room. (Almost all manufacturing of medical devices takes place in a controlled environment, a clean room, in order to preserve the sterility of the device.) There, one of the engineering supervisors gave us a tour of the entire line that makes the device. We got to see it transform from spare parts and glue canisters to a finished product. What amazed me most was that the vast majority of the process is manual. The workers’ precision is unmatched by automated systems and they perform vital checks periodically to maintain the device’s integrity.

In the clean room, don’t sneeze!

On the other end of the spectrum, the patient end, we got to watch a live procedure of a surgeon repairing a hole in a patient’s heart. It was streamed live to our office. The doctor started by explaining the procedure, which was extremely helpful for me to understand the actions he performed later. Then, we watched him perform the procedure and even got to see it on fluoroscopy at the same time. (Fluoroscopy is very similar to x-ray in that it allows us to see into the heart including its chambers and blood vessels.) We watched him insert the catheter into the heart and then deploy the wire balloon-like device that plugged the hole in the heart. The fact that a doctor can enter through a small incision in the leg instead of cracking open the ribs to repair the heart astounded me. It was a good reminder to me why I am in bioengineering: to improve patients’ lives by revolutionizing procedures, to minimize the negative impact of treatments and diseases.

Live-streamed heart procedure

Although both of the above events were awesome, my favorite part of the week was talking to D about packaging engineering. What comes into your mind when I say “packaging”? For me, it was a brown, bulging envelope with UPS written on it; but that changed quickly. D was so passionate about his job that it only took him one meeting to impart that passion unto us. He was kind enough to take an hour out of his schedule to show Karlee, Chandler, and me the basics of packaging engineering. “Packaging is the first thing that the customer sees,” he said, which means that it is the make-it-or-break-it first impression. He showed us several different packages and talked about how important it is to make the package not only attractive but also informative. Color coding is a popular way to do this, as are large fonts for key characteristics of the device like its name or size. He also talked about customizing the package to the user. For example, nurses want to be able to easily grab the correct product off of the shelf without actually reading the label; this is where visual cues such as color and information layout are vital. Also, it is important to make the packages easy to open,

Packaging engineering!

and for those used in surgery, easy to open without touching the device to maintain sterility. It’s insights like these that make packaging so interesting to me. I had never really thought about packaging before, I guess I had always assumed that the boxes and labels for products just magically appeared. But if I’ve learned anything this summer, it’s that nothing just magically happens; everything requires lots of work and planning.

I’ve also learned a lot about the dynamics of a big company so far this summer. Boston has forty offices around the world and employs over 27,000 people. As a huge medical company, Boston has detailed instructions on how to perform every task from the entire design process to each station on a manufacturing line. (From the detail I’ve seen in my trainings, they may even have a procedure for mopping the bathroom floors!) Personally, I think that this has its pros and cons. Some of the pros are that there is global uniformity between sites, which makes communication and data or work transfer much smoother. It also ensures that every task at Boston is completed with the utmost quality. On the other hand, this also allows workers to fall into ruts that stifle the outside-of-the-box thinking that sparks new products and novel techniques. However, Boston’s employees are extremely skilled and their experience is an invaluable asset. For example, I read many of the procedures for each station in the manufacturing line this week, but it was only when I actually watched someone doing it that it made sense. Each person is an expert in their station: they can spot a defect from a mile away, they have perfect technique every time, and they can sense when something isn’t right. All of these reasons contribute to the fact that much of Boston’s manufacturing is manual; humans can out-perform machines by a wide margin on many tasks.

As always, some fun facts about Costa Rica:

  • Typing “Walmart” into Uber may take you to a back alley or secured Walmart offices
  • Traffic lights blink green before turning yellow
  • It is actually possible that the sky decides not to rain for the entire day here

Aside from work, this weekend I was blessed to help with a vacation Bible school in a church near our hotel. A group from Texas, who were staying at our hotel, organized the Bible school (crazy coincidence, right?). So Josh and I joined them and helped with crafts, games, and face painting in the morning. They also invited us to church in the evening where we joined Costa Rican youths to sing worship songs in Spanish and English, hear a moving testimony from a Texas youth pastor, and pray over the youths in attendance (again in Spanish and English). It was an incredible experience for me, to practice my religious beliefs with those of a different language, nationality, and background; that night, none of that mattered. It was a reminder to me that even though we may be different by all outward indications, we can be very similar on the inside.

Face painting, beware the tiger!

Hiking with a great view of San Jose

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