Dolmen designs for life

by Paul Fanning

There may be no such thing as a foolproof formula for good product design, but Dolmen Design & Innovation may be closer to it than most.

It’s a truism to say that all good products rely on good design, but the question of how to arrive at good design is a rather more complex one. Nobody has a magic formula, which is why collaboration with external agencies has increasingly become a vital component of the process.

One such agency is Dolmen Design & Innovation, a product design and innovation consultancy headquartered in Glasnevin, Dublin. Founded in 1991, the company works serves multinationals, SMEs and start-ups in the consumer products, medical devices and industrial spheres. The company has 25 people and is hiring.

Frances Mitchell, Director of Business Development of Dolmen, says of the team: “All our people are fundamentally designers. Some are industrial designers and some are design engineers, but they all have a core of design training. What we would always say about the team is that they’re born designers. Design is who they are not what they do.”

The balance between the skills among the Dolmen team is key to their success as designers. As Mitchell puts it: “We’re very much a combination of creative and technical. It’s not just about making things look good, it’s very much about the nitty gritty. We’ve generated a large number of patents for our clients by incorporating design engineering into what we do. But at the same time, it’s also very much about collaboration between our R&D and marketing teams.”

However, the key to success lies in taking It’s about taking those design and technical innovations and bringing the right product to market. Much of this relies on the design methodology employed by the company.

“It’s about how we do what we do,” claims Mitchell. “There are a lot of theories of design thinking out there and a lot of them are very good, but they don’t actually tell anyone how to practically implement them in such as way as to actually make business happen. That’s where we are very good. We’ve taken these theories and turned them into a practical approach.”

Dolmen has a number of long-standing relationships with clients – over 20 years in some cases – was involved in the Horizon 2020 EU Framework Programme for Research and worked for 10 years to help arrive at an international standard in innovation. This latter the company regards as an international vindication of its methodology and processes.

So how does the process work? Says Mitchell: “First of all you have to build the right teams, getting the right buy-in and then going out into the market and doing the right customer research. And then you can sit down and drive it through a very highly structured brainstorm. And then you have early-stage validation with very early prototypes and visuals. From there, you build a business case before you start doing the classic product design cycle. That way, you can mitigate against risk at an early stage. So with a little bit of investment at the front end, you end up saving quite significantly by the time you get to market.”

In the majority of cases, clients come to Dolmen with some form of proof of principle, meaning they sometimes have the fundamental idea and technology and are looking to test it and see if it can turn into a product. A classic case of this came with the development of a product called Moocall.

The Moocall is an innovative IoT product that literally allows the cow to text the farmer when it is about to calve, saving sleep, sanity and animal lives. Since 2014, it has sold in 40 different countries around the world. However, its origins were rather more humble. In fact, The Moocall team arrived at Dolmen’s door with a proof of principle prototype in a lunchbox that they had tied to the tail of a cow. Dolmen’s job was to transform this concept into a product that would work, not only for cows and farmers, but the extreme environment it was going to endure.

“In the case of Moocall,” says Mitchell, “the inventor had seen a movement of tail and wanted to work with the university to quantify the algorithm to ensure that the movement of tail did give a real indication that the cow was about to calve. And if that worked, it was a question of taking what at that stage just tech in a lunchbox and working out how that could become a product. So at its core it was working, but it wasn’t commercialisable yet. It’s not developed for use. You can have great technology, but if nobody knows how to use it you’ve got nothing. There can be a lot of technological problems where people have something that working, but they don’t have something that can be manufactured and work.”

The design of the Moocall was significantly influenced by the design discovery stage. Rapid learning methods were implemented on site on the farm with the client’s participation, saving hours of trying to replicate conditions in the studio. Design considerations included the requirement to fit multiple breed of cow (they all have different tails), high IP rating (for the field and the tail end of the cow), ruggedised design to survive impact against sheds and fencing, understanding farmers’ hands and the speed with which this device needs to be put in place.

Sometimes, however, the process works quite differently, as Mitchell explains. “On the other hand, there are times when people feel there are opportunities and they need to find them,” she says. “So we worked with a company called Clevamama and they just said that from 7pm to 7am in the life of a new mother there are opportunities and there are pain points where we can help them. They asked us to help them and find them those opportunities and solutions. We developed a number of really nice products for them, one of which will launch just before Christmas in Ireland and will launch internationally next year.”

She continues: “Often it’s about proving ourselves to new clients. So we go in and we show that we can deliver better solutions. We had a multinational come to us recently and say that they’d been working on a project for two years and were thinking of ditching it. So they asked if we could blitz it for two weeks and come back to them to make sure they’d exhausted all possible avenues on the project before making a final decision.

“And so we did and then we went back to them and they were amazed because they’d been working on this for two years and hadn’t come up with these ideas. They hadn’t come up with these aesthetics, they hadn’t come up with these mechanical solutions. It’s because we’ve got a different approach and a different way of thinking that we are able to come up with those solutions. And in fact we managed to save that project.”

One of the developments of which the company is especially proud is an esophageal stent delivery system called the Evolution developed for Cook Medical. At the time when we Dolmen were working on it, esophageal stents were delivered in a two-handed procedure. Cook Medical wanted to turn it into a single-handed procedure, so Dolmen’s team undertook a lot of customer research across the world talking to and observing surgeons and getting as much qualitative data as they could.

This was where the inspiration came from to exceed the original design brief by adding another feature to the device. Says Mitchell: “There’s always an open question at the end of these discussions where we asked what could be done that would make it perfect for you. One surgeon said it might be nice if you could find a way to retract the stent before it’s fully deployed. So when we dug a bit deeper into that, we found that even though the majority of these stents are delivered in a 45-minute procedure, occasionally they’re misplaced and when that happens you’re talking open-chest surgery and minimum three days in hospital – highly invasive and highly risky. So we saw there was an opportunity there for us to integrate it into the single-handed solution.”

Following some research, the team discovered a reversible gearing system that was in use in another industry. They were able to take that and integrate it intothe single-handed solution. “It essentially looks like a gun device with a single trigger,” says Mitchell. “This gives a very controlled release of the stent and indicates how far you’ve deployed it. This means that before you go halfway, you can do a scan and make sure you’re happy with its position. If you are you can keep going, but if you’re not, you can retract it by pressing a simple mechanical button and reposition.”

The Evolution remains the only fully controlled-release stent system in the world.

Going forward, 2020 will see Dolmen moving into new markets and adopting new models. However, as Mitchell makes clear, the heart of this remains the quality of the team. She says: “It’s a very, very creative team here who love a challenge and love great concepts and are very proud of their work. That’s at the core of what we do as a company.”

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